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United States v. Roberts

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Citation Edit

United States v. Roberts, 86 F.Supp.2d 678 (S.D. Tex. 2000) (full-text), aff’d, 274 F.3d 1007 (5th Cir. 2001) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

A Customs Service Resident Agent informed Customs Senior Special Agent Rios that Roberts would be flying that day on a non-stop flight from Houston to Paris and that he would be carrying diskettes containing child pornography in a shaving kit. Weeks later, another agent provided Rios with a photograph of Roberts the day before he was scheduled to take a similar flight, and customs agents identified Roberts and conducted an outbound search of his personal effects on the jetway to the Paris flight. The agents found images of child pornography on diskettes taken from his luggage.

Trial Court Proceedings Edit

At trial, Roberts was convicted and sentenced to prison. The district court held that the search of the computer and diskettes would have been valid as a routine border search.[1]

Appellate Court Proceedings Edit

Although he had consented to the search, Roberts contended on appeal that any warrantless search and seizure of computer equipment is non-routine due to the great intrusion on a traveler’s privacy.[2] The court decided that it could avoid deciding the issue of whether the search of the diskettes was routine while affirming the lower court’s decision; but interestingly, it assumed arguendo that the search was non-routine. The court devised a test for routine outbound searches:

Based on this record, and bringing into play only the most narrow constitutional basis, a non-routine outbound search is permissible when the following factors are present: (1) the outbound search is at the border or its functional equivalent; (2) Customs Agents have reasonable suspicion that a particular traveler will imminently engage in the felonious transportation of specific contraband in foreign commerce; and (3) the search is relatively unintrusive and only of the area where the contraband is allegedly secreted.[3]

This test did not distinguish body searches from inanimate object searches.[4] Since the search, whether routine or not, satisfied the new test, the court affirmed the district court’s ruling on the narrow basis that the agents had reasonable suspicion.[5]

The court held that “[t]he initial jetway search was permitted by reasonable suspicion that Roberts was about to board an international flight with child pornography in tote.”[6] In turn, the customs agents gained probable cause to search and seize the diskettes when Roberts admitted that the diskettes contained child pornography.[7] However, the court declined to decided whether reasonable suspicion was required to begin with;[8] it also ignored the inquiry whether the search may have been reasonable simply because it occurred at the border.

References Edit

  1. 86 F.Supp.2d at 687-89.
  2. 274 F.3d at 1012.
  3. Id. at 1014.
  4. Id.
  5. Id. at 1012.
  6. Id. at 1017.
  7. Id. at 1014.
  8. See id.

See also Edit

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