Here we go again. Another case has surfaced where U.S. Customs seized computers and other electronic media from a U.S. traveler at the border, shipped them off to be imaged, rifled through the imaged contents looking for evidence and then weeks later, based on emails they found while going through the computer images, finally sought a search warrant arguing that there is probable cause that the Iran sanctions had been violated.
This almost identical scenario recently led a federal district court in Washington, DC, to toss out evidence gathered in this fashion. And neither of these cases is particularly tough: if you have the time to haul the computer from the airport after the passenger has departed, you have time to get a warrant before snooping through the computer. This is not like the typical border search where Customs looks at a suitcase before the traveler takes it with him to a foreign country.
The latest case involves a search of Idin Rafiee, a San Diego resident and U.S. citizen, who, on October 5, 2012, was traveling to London through LAX. He had a computer, an external hard drive, a smart phone and a tablet with him. A Customs agent told Mr. Rafiee that Customs was detaining his electronic media on the ground that there was reason to believe that there was child pornography on it. The media was imaged on October 9 and returned to Rafiee on October 13. The government did not seek a search warrant until November 1, 2012, and based the warrant on emails that it obtained from the seized media before it had obtained a warrant. Subsequently, Rafiee was charged with violating the U.S. sanctions on Iran.
The child pornography claim was a complete fabrication. There was never any evidence supporting such a belief and no such pornography, or any pornography for that matter, was alleged by the government to have been found. Instead, the only evidence the government had was an alleged statement by a disgruntled employee that the defendant was doing business in Iran, even though the notes of the conversation with the employee produced by the Government did not mention Iran.
Of course, even if the Government had some valid reason to grab Rafiee’s stuff, there was no exigency once they had it to justify searching it before getting a warrant. They had all the time in the world, as their one month delay in applying for a warrant amply demonstrates. Beyond that, the notion that you can bootstrap a warrant request with evidence from the same computer you are asking to be permitted to search is, at best, ludicrous.
Not surprisingly, the Government finally dropped all charges against Rafiee on May 13, 2016, before the Court even had an opportunity to rule on Rafiee’s motion to suppress.