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Name: U.S. v. Cotterman
Case #: 09-10139
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 03/08/2013

Whether a comprehensive forensic search of a computer brought across the border is justified under the Fourth Amendment is analyzed under a reasonable suspicion standard. Returning from Mexico in 2007, Cotterman reached the U.S. port of entry in Arizona. During a primary inspection, a TECS (Treasury Enforcement Communication System) hit was received for him indicating that he had been convicted of child molestation in 1992 and that he was potentially involved in child sex tourism. His computers and cameras were inspected and found to contain family and other noncontraband photos and several password-protected files. He was released but the computers were held and subjected to an intensive forensic examination some 170 miles away from the border. Several days later, one of the computers was found to contain images of child pornography. The lower court granted Cotterman’s suppression motion but the Ninth Circuit reversed. Border searches constitute a narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment prohibition against warrantless searches without probable cause. Even so, at the border, the individual does not lose all privacy rights and the search must be reasonable under the totality of the circumstances. A comprehensive forensic examination of a computer requires reasonable suspicion. There must be a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the person is engaged in criminal activity. Here, the agents searching the cameras and computers had more than an incomplete and unparticularized suspicion of criminal activity to support the computer search. The TECS hit indicated Cotterman was engaged in some type of child pornography; he had a prior record for molestation; he traveled frequently out of country; he was coming from Mexico, a country associated with sex tourism; and his computer contained password-protected files. Under the totality of these circumstances, the forensic search of the computers over a period of time was reasonable.