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Border agents accused of unconstitutionally searching, seizing travelers' computers

Also: Airline fees still surprise travelers, and the bedbug problem has reached the West Coast.

September 13, 2010|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times

Anyone who has traveled abroad with a laptop or other electronic device might cringe to hear about the criminal defense attorney who had the contents of her computer searched by border agents after flying into Houston from Mexico.

And then there is the freelance photographer who was stopped at the U.S. border with Canada where officials scanned through his laptop files.

Perhaps the most unnerving tale is that of the graduate student who was riding a train from Montreal to New York when border guards confiscated his laptop and external hard drive for 11 days.

The three Americans are cited in a lawsuit filed last week by the ACLU, the National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers and others against the Homeland Security Department. The lawsuit alleges that border agents seize and search the electronic devices of international travelers without establishing suspicion of wrongdoing, in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Homeland Security Department spokesman Matthew Chandler declined to comment on the lawsuit.

But he said in an e-mail: "Searches of laptops and other electronic media during secondary inspection are a targeted tool that [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] uses in limited circumstances to ensure that dangerous people and unlawful goods do not enter our country."

The lawsuit cites the tales of attorney Lisa Wayne, graduate student Pascal Abidor and photographer Duane Kerzic to suggest that anyone who crosses the U.S. border with an electronic device could get the same treatment.

"It affects criminal lawyers. It affects photographers. It affects businessmen with trade secrets," said Michael Price, a spokesman for the lawyers group. "It affects everybody."

Between Oct. 1, 2008, and June 2 of this year, more than 6,500 people had their electronic devices searched by border agents, according to the lawsuit. In 280 cases, border agents shared information gleaned from such devices with other law enforcement agencies, the lawsuit said.

• Airline fees still surprise travelers

Although extra airline fees began to pop up as far back as 2008, many passengers say they are still shocked when they have to pay such charges at the airport.

In a survey released last week of nearly 1,400 passengers, 66% said they had been surprised by fees to check bags, reserve a seat with more leg room or fly standby, among other extras.

The survey — by the Consumer Travel Alliance, the Business Travel Coalition and the American Society of Travel Agents — also found that travelers ranked the carry-on bag charge as the most annoying fee, followed by fees for seat reservations and checked baggage. Spirit Airlines is the only major U.S. carrier to charge for carry-on luggage.

The groups that conducted the survey are pressing airlines to make a full disclosure of such fees.

"Hidden fees are a violation of a traveler's most basic right," said Charlie Leocha, president of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Springfield, Va.

• Bedbugs reach the West Coast

Complaints about bedbugs have been on the rise this summer, particularly in New York hotels, condos and apartment buildings. Bedbugs can be a real hassle for business travelers who spend many nights in hotels.

The problem has become so acute that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a statement last month, warning people not to misuse pesticides on the "alarming resurgence in the population of bed bugs."

Maciej Ceglowski, founder of bedbugregistry.com — a website that collects and tracks bedbug complaints — said the reports made to his site have skyrocketed in the last few months and are not limited to the East Coast.

A map on his website marks the sites of every bedbug complaint with a red dot, he noted.

The dots suggest that in Southern California, bedbugs have been feasting heavily on sleeping victims in the Hollywood and Westlake neighborhoods of Los Angeles and in downtown San Diego.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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