Customs officers search reporter’s car and phone at Canadian border

October 22, 2018

Anne Elizabeth Moore — a cultural critic and reporter who has written for Salon, Teen Vogue, Jacobin, and The New Inquiry — was driving across the Ambassador Bridge into Detroit, Michigan, on August 3, 2017, when she was stopped and questioned by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.

Moore told the Committee to Protect Journalists that she had crossed the border earlier that day to cover a cultural event in Toronto. During this first crossing, Moore recalled, the officer had asked her an “unusual” number of questions. She said that typically the officers will ask five or six questions, but this time the officer asked twice as many. Moore said that the CBP officers asked her why she was entering Canada, and after she said that she was a journalist about to write about an event, one of the officers “said something like, ‘We’re going to keep an eye on you,’ or something ominous like that.”

She didn’t give the comment a second thought — until that evening, when she tried to cross the border back into the United States around 11:30 p.m. Immediately after she pulled up to the U.S. border stop, she said, CBP officers told her to park her car and leave her phone on the dashboard, powered on and unlocked. The officers also asked her if she had a passcode on her phone, which she did not.

The officers directed Moore into an office to wait, and while she wasn’t questioned, the officer working at the desk would not tell her how long the search would take and that she’d simply need to wait. After about 15 minutes, she was allowed to return to her car, which had clearly been searched. Moore told CPJ that the officers left some of her belongings strewn on the ground and the doors and trunk partially open.

Moore also noticed that her phone had been moved, and she is believes it is possible, if not likely, that the CBP officers may have accessed some of her confidential information and sources, including information related to a piece she is currently working on that involves illegal border crossing.

Journalists have little legal protection when it comes to electronic device searches at the border. A 2018 CBP directive requires agents to consult legal counsel if an individual objects to a search on the grounds of attorney–client privilege, but does not provide the same protection for journalists protecting confidential sources or materials. This can leave reporters, their unpublished work, and their sources vulnerable.

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