Merchant v. Mayorkas (formerly Alasaad v. Nielsen)

Merchant v. Mayorkas (formerly Alasaad et al. v. Nielsen et al., No. 1:17-cv-11730-DJC  (D. Mass., filed Sept. 13, 2017), Nos. 20-1077, 20-1081 (1st Cir., filed Jan. 28, 2020), No. 20-1505 (Sup. Ct., filed Apr. 23, 2021)

On September 13, 2017, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, along with the ACLU and the ACLU of Massachusetts, brought suit against Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), challenging those agencies’ practices of seizing travelers’ electronic devices without a warrant or individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. The organizations filed on behalf of 10 U.S. citizens and one lawful permanent resident who had smartphones and other electronic devices seized when they arrived at the U.S. border. Many of the plaintiffs had their devices confiscated for extended periods of time. Plaintiffs seek the return of their devices, as well as declaratory and injunctive relief requiring the government to seek a warrant or have probable cause that a crime was committed prior to seizing a traveler’s cellphone. On December 15, 2017, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss.

On May 9, 2018, the court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss, holding that Plaintiffs plausibly alleged that the government’s digital device search policies substantially burden travelers’ First Amendment rights.

Defendants filed an answer on June 1, 2018. Since then, the parties have been proceeding through the discovery process. In Spring 2019, the parties cross-moved for summary judgment, with plaintiffs arguing that CBP’s policy authorizing warrantless, suspicionless searches of electronic devices violates the First and Fourth Amendments and are seeking an injunction. Oral argument was held in July 2019. In November 2019, the court denied Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The court allowed in part and denied in part Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, denying the request for injunctive relief but allowing the request for declaratory relief. The district court then entered a judgment stating that border authorities may only search a traveler’s electronic device if they have reasonable suspicion that the device contains digital contraband. Defendants appealed the order, and Plaintiffs cross-appealed in January of 2020. Briefing on the cross-appeals was ongoing through July, and in August 2020, Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, the Brennan Center for Justice, Constitutional Accountability Center, The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Knight First Amendment Institute, and a number of other civil rights, immigration, privacy, and free speech organizations filed briefs as amicus curiae.

On February 9, 2021, the First Circuit issued its decision, holding that neither a warrant nor reasonable suspicion are required for CBP agents to conduct a basic search of electronic devices, and that neither a warrant nor probable cause is required to conduct an advanced search. It also held that CBP agents can retain an electronic device after a traveler crosses the border.

On April 23, 2021, Plaintiffs filed a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court, asking the Court to clarify what level of suspicion (i.e., probable cause, reasonable suspicion, or none) is required to search a traveler’s electronic devices, and the scope of that search. The petition further asks the Supreme Court to impose a minimum requirement of reasonable suspicion for any such search conducted at the border. The Constitutional Accountability Center, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Brennan Center for Justice, and TechFreedom submitted amicus briefs in support of the Plaintiff-Petitioners. On June 29, 2021, the Supreme Court denied the petition for certiorari.

Documents:

Counsel:  Electronic Frontier Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Massachusetts