Earlier this month, a U.S. District Court Judge ruled that incriminating emails obtained from a laptop seized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from South Korean citizen Jae Shik Kim in December 2012, before Kim boarded a flight in Los Angeles, cannot be used as evidence in a case accusing Kim of conspiracy to send aircraft parts to China and Iran. Officials conducted a warrantless search of the laptop and found emails that discussed the potential procurement of aircraft parts for a buyer in China. The judge ruled that there was little suspicion of ongoing criminal activity at the time of the laptop search, rendering the warrantless search unreasonable.

Although federal officials had received information at the time of the search that Kim was involved in a prior shipment of export-controlled items to a Chinese individual who sent them to Iran, the judge reasoned that the laptop search “was predicated upon the . . . expectation that the computer would contain evidence of past criminal activity” and was not founded on the necessary “objective manifestation” that the accused, at that time, was engaged in criminal activity or was about to be engaged in criminal activity.

The judge rejected the government’s argument that laptops should be treated as other containers subject to warrantless border searches: “One cannot treat an electronic storage device like a handbag simply because you can put things in it and then carry it onto a plane,” she wrote.

Kim was indicted in March 2013 on counts of IEEPA and AECA violations, allegedly conspiring with individuals in Iran and China to attempt to purchase U.S.-origin accelerometers, used on aircraft and in missile navigation systems.

For additional detail, see coverage in Law360 and in the Star Tribune.