United States v. Cotterman

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Criminal Procedure
  • Date Filed: 03-08-2013
  • Case #: 09-10139
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge McKeown for the Court; Chief Judge Kozinski and Circuit Judges Thomas, Wardlaw, Fisher, Gould, Clifton, Murguia, and Christensen; Partial concurrence and dissent by Circuit Judge Callahan. Dissent by Circuit Judge M.D. Smith, Jr.
  • Full Text Opinion

Evidence obtained from a laptop computer after a full forensic examination conducted 170 miles away from where the laptop was seized by border control agents is constitutional where the agents had reasonable suspicion to conduct the search.

Howard Wesley Cotterman was charged of several crimes involving child pornography. While returning home from a family trip to Mexico, Wesley’s laptop computer was confiscated by border agents after an initial border inspection revealed his status as a sex offender through the Treasury Enforcement Communication System (“TECS”). Due to the positive hit on TECS, a more thorough search of Wesley’s car was conducted which revealed a laptop with password-protected files. Unable to open the files at the border, the laptop was sent to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office 170 miles away for a full forensic examination. The district court granted Wesley’s motion to suppress the evidence found on his laptop, finding that the border agents lacked reasonable suspicion to conduct the “extended border search.” The government filed an interlocutory appeal challenging the suppression, arguing that an “extended border search” allows law enforcement to seize a computer without reasonable suspicion to have it forensically examined at another location. The Ninth Circuit, sitting en banc, rejected the application of the “extended border search” doctrine in this case simply because the forensic examination was conducted at a location 170 miles away from the border. Nonetheless, the Court did agree that the intrusiveness of a full forensic examination of a laptop computer, regardless of the location, does require a showing of reasonable suspicion because substantial privacy interests are implicated. The Court held that reasonable suspicion was satisfied in this case under a totality of the circumstances. REVERSED.

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