The US government’s prosecution of a South Korean businessman accused of illegally selling technology used in aircraft and missiles to Iran was dealt a devastating blow by a federal judge this week. The judge ruled that the authorities illegally seized the businessman’s computer at Los Angeles International Airport as he was to board a flight home.
The authorities who were investigating Jae Shik Kim exercised the border exception rule that allows the authorities to seize and search goods and people—without court warrants—along the border and at airport international terminals. US District Court judge Amy Berman Jackson of the District of Columbia noted that the Supreme Court has never directly addressed the issue of warrantless computer searches at an international border crossing, but she ruled (PDF) the government used Kim’s flight home as an illegal pretext to seize his computer. Authorities then shipped it 150 miles south to San Diego where the hard drive was copied and examined for weeks, but the judge said the initial seizure “surely cannot be justified.”
After considering all of the facts and authorities set forth above, then, the Court finds, under the totality of the unique circumstances of this case, that the imaging and search of the entire contents of Kim’s laptop, aided by specialized forensic software, for a period of unlimited duration and an examination of unlimited scope, for the purpose of gathering evidence in a pre-existing investigation, was supported by so little suspicion of ongoing or imminent criminal activity, and was so invasive of Kim’s privacy and so disconnected from not only the considerations underlying the breadth of the government’s authority to search at the border, but also the border itself, that it was unreasonable.
The defendant was accused of unlawfully selling Q-Flex Accelerometers—models QA-2000-10, QA-2000-20, and QA-3000—manufactured by Honeywell Aerospace. They require an export license before they can be sold from within the US. Kim was accused of selling the technology to intermediaries in China and Korea before their ultimate destination of Iran.
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