A federal appeals court (.pdf below) has ruled that the suspicionless search of a crewmember’s cabin aboard a ship did not violate the crewmember’s Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure. In the case, a search of the ship by customs officials uncovered child pornography in the crewmember’s room.
In April 2008, a cargo ship was docked in waters off Miami, Florida, after sailing from the Dominican Republic. Customs and Border Protection officials with the Agricultural Enforcement Team searched the ship looking for prohibited agricultural materials.
When the officials searched the room of Hilario Alfaro-Mondaca, the ship’s cook, they found several DVDs containing child pornography. Alfaro-Mondaca was taken into custody. He was later convicted and sentenced to more than 7 years in prison for possession of the images.
(For some good tips on how to protect sensitive, but not illegal, documents while traveling through customs, see "Protecting Sensitive Information When Crossing the Border.")
Alfaro-Mondaca filed suit against the U.S. government claiming that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when the customs officials searched his room without provocation.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled against Alfaro-Mondaca, finding that the ship was docked at the equivalent of a border, making the act a border search. The court ruled that, according to case law, an individual has a lesser expectation of privacy at a border and the government has a greater interest in searching thus the balance tips more favorably to the government. The court also noted that the U.S. government has valid concerns that maritime transportation could be used by terrorist to smuggle personnel, weapons, or dangerous materials in the United States.
In the written opinion of the case, the court said that customs personnel are charged with uncovering any type of contraband and the fact that the team did not uncover what it set out to find is irrelevant. “The Agricultural Enforcement Team that searched Alfaro-Mondaca’s cabin was looking for agricultural contraband and found child pornography. Even limiting our analysis to the search for agricultural contraband, however, important national interests are still involved,” the opinion concluded.
(U.S. v. Alfaro-Mondaca, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, No. 08-16442, 2010). For a .pdf of the decision, click below.