In a settlement reached with human rights activist David House, the government has agreed to destroy all data it obtained from his laptop and other electronics when he entered the U.S. after a vacation, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Massachusetts announced today. House, who was then working with the Bradley Manning Support Network, an organization created to raise funds for the legal defense of the soldier who has admitted to leaking material to WikiLeaks, charged in a lawsuit that the seizure violated his Fourth Amendment rights by subjecting him to unreasonable search and seizure, and violated his First Amendment right to freedom of association.
In November 2010, Department of Homeland Security agents stopped House at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and questioned him about his political activities and beliefs. They then confiscated his laptop, camera, and USB drive, which contained information identifying members and supporters of the Bradley Manning Support Network. The government copied House’s cell phone at the airport and held his laptop and other devices for 49 days. The data taken from House’s materials was then turned over to the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID), which concluded that it would not use the information.
“The government’s sweeping claim that it can search through our electronics at the border for any reason or no reason at all is flatly contradicted by the Fourth Amendment, which protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “The tremendous amount of personal and business information that we can now easily carry around with us means that respecting the Fourth Amendment in all places – including the border – is more important than ever.”
Under the terms of the settlement, the government agreed to destroy all remaining data copied from House’s devices. The government will also hand over numerous documents, including reports describing Army CID’s inspection of House’s data as well as the DHS “Lookout” telling agents to stop House as he entered the country. The government further agreed to release reports on DHS agents’ questioning of House, which included inquiries about whether he knew anything about Manning giving classified information to WikiLeaks.
“The seizure of David House’s computer is a chilling example of the government’s overbroad ability to conduct a search at the border that intrudes into a person’s political beliefs and associations,” said John Reinstein, an attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Those rights were vindicated by the settlement we reached.”
In March 2012, the U.S. district court judge in the case rejected the government’s effort to dismiss the lawsuit, ruling that even if the government does not need suspicion to search a laptop at the border, that power is not unlimited and First Amendment rights remain intact. The settlement announced today is the result of months of negotiations following that decision.
“When my laptop was seized on American soil, I made a pledge to the everyday working people, clergy, and U.S. service members who make up the heart of Mr. Manning’s financial contributors: that their generosity would not be met with retaliation from corrupt elements within our government, and that their personally identifying information, placed at risk by the seizure, would be reclaimed from those who had ordered it seized,” House said.
“Today, with a settlement to reclaim this data realized through the pressure of the courts and the hard work of the ACLU, I have made good on my pledge. The government’s surrender of this data is a victory through vital action not only for the citizens put at risk, but also for anyone who believes that Americans should be free to support political causes without fearing retaliation from Washington.”
The settlement is available at:
More information on the case is at: