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What's a 'reasonable' search of your electronics at the airport?

Air travel seems to be getting more stressful every year -- even before you board the plane. If you're returning to the U.S. from overseas, you'll have some interaction with Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers. They take a greater interest in some travelers than others for a host of reasons. However, if you are asked to hand over your phone, tablet, laptop or other devices to a CBP or other government employee, it's important to know what your rights are.

In most cases, agents are allowed to search a person's cellphone and other electronic devices without a search warrant. However, that search must be reasonable in the eye of the law. The U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts throughout the country have ruled in cases challenging the reasonableness and constitutionality of searches.

It's not easy to win a case against the federal government, particularly when it involves the actions taken in the name of protecting our country's safety. What may not seem reasonable to the average traveler (for example, keeping a person's phone for days to review it) may be acceptable if agents had a reasonable suspicion that something was amiss or believed the person posed a threat to national security.

Officers, however, typically can't search cloud data on a device. The CBP also directs its employees not to attach equipment to someone's device.

Generally, these intense searches occur when people are coming into the U.S. from abroad. However, one man who was on his way from Los Angeles to Saudi Arabia is suing the government because he says CBP officers ordered him to unlock his phone so they could search it. After what was apparently a heated exchange, he allowed them to do it. However, he's claiming that they violated his constitutional rights.

It remains to be seen how that case plays out. However, if you believe that CBP officers or other government agents, such as those working for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), violated your rights at the airport, you may want to seek legal guidance to determine whether you have a viable case.

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