MONTREAL - A Montreal university student is suing the US government after being detained, handcuffed and held for several hours in a cell on the Canadian-American borders for carrying a laptop that included materials from his doctoral research on Islamic studies.
Ridiculous and absurd are the words that come to mind, said Pascal Abidor, a student at McGill University, the Canadian Press reported on Sunday, April 8.
I thought to myself, I'm going to at least try to do something to make a stink out of this.'
Returning by train to Brooklyn in May, 2010, Abidor said a US Customs and Border Protection agent stopped him at the border in Champlain, New York.
Opening Abidor's computer, the agent found photos of rallies by the Palestinian group Hamas, which he said he downloaded from Google as part of his McGill University doctoral dissertation on the modern history of Shiites in Lebanon.
Confiscating his laptop, the agent handcuffed Abidor, who is not a Muslim, and took him off the train and kept him in a holding cell for several hours.
During his detention, he was grilled over his interest in Islam and past trips to the Middle East, before he was let go at the border.
Eleven days later, Abidor's laptop was returned with evidence that many of his personal files, including research, photos and chats, had been opened.
Facing this experience for the first time in his regular travels through the American-Canadian borders, Abidor said the experience was eye-opening.
In the days that followed, he had trouble sleeping and developed an unhealthy mix of rage and fear, Abidor said in a recent interview in Montreal.
Taking his case to court, civil rights groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit on his behalf in September, 2010.
The lawsuit contests policies adopted by US government agencies permitting the search of all electronic devices that contain information, including laptops, cameras, mobile phones and smart phones.
As Abidor's lawyers argued the search was unconstitutional, the government said it has the right to search belongings at the border without cause.
The judge has yet to rule on whether he will dismiss the case.
Civil rights lawyers said that Abidor's case was not the first.
We've received many complaints over the years about people having their electronic devices searched and even seized at the border, and in some cases held onto for a very long time, Abidor's lawyer Catherine Crump said in an interview.
The government asserts that when it comes to electronic devices, people who cross the border have no rights. They argue that they can take your cell phone or laptop and keep them as long as they like.
According to ACLU, more than 6,600 people had their electronic devices searched as they crossed US borders between October, 2008, and June, 2010.
Some 22 percent of those people - 1,477 of them - were Canadians, the most of any nationality besides American.
Denying these accusations, the US government argued that these inspections were done in limited circumstances only.
Inspections of electronic media are used only in limited circumstances to ensure that dangerous people and unlawful goods do not enter our country, Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for the US Department of Homeland Security, said.
Chandler said the department has been transparent about these searches, with the policies and privacy impact assessment of them available on the department's website.
But, Crump argues that the practice violates the US's first amendment right to free speech, because laptops contain so much protected, expressive material, and also violates the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
She added that the practice is a major intrusion.
You shouldn't have to risk that the government is going to go through your family photographs and financial information just because you choose to cross the border, she said.
They [border guards] have to have some reason to think that a search will turn up evidence of a wrongdoing.It doesn't mean that they have to have an airtight case, but they do have to have something.