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Border search of a crewmember’s living quarters upheld; United States v. Alfaro-Moncada

The Fourth Amendment gives individuals the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures. In this case the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the search of a crewmember’s living quarters on a cargo ship by federal agents, after the boat had arrived from a foreign port. The search was upheld by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court decided the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment given the important national security interests of a ship entering the U.S. by sea.

The boat had docked on the Miami River, its first port of entry from outside the U.S. when it was boarded by Customs and Border Protection Officers whose purpose in inspecting the vessel was to find agricultural materials that are prohibited from entering the United States.

This agricultural inspection team advised the captain after boarding the boat that they intended to search the boat from “stem to stern” beginning with the bridge. While conducting a visual inspection of a crew member’s cabin, one of the inspectors spotted a DVD he found suspicious. On closer inspection, he discovered the DVD contained child pornography. The crewman was convicted of child pornography possession.

The defendant moved to suppress the evidence seized in the search and lost with the trial court. The court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress. The court of appeals acknowledged that the defendant’s living quarter was his home and deserved the highest Fourth amendment protection.

The fact that the home was passing across the border means that national security concerns outweighed the intrusive search into the privacy of one’s own home. The court compared it expectation of privacy one would expect if driving across the border in a recreational vehicle used as one’s home.

An unreasonable search of your home, care or personal possessions is illegal and in violation of unreasonable search violates the Fourth Amendment. The Swartz Law Firm has experience with filing motions to suppress in Federal Court challenging illegal searches.

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