Such searches are rare, with "about a 10 in a million chance" of happening, so "there is not a substantial risk" someone's laptop, cellphone or other device will be searched and seized at the nation's borders, including at airports and on trains, U.S. District Judge Edward R. Korman wrote.
But for people whose devices do get searched, the government doesn't need reasonable suspicion to examine or confiscate them, he wrote, citing case law that holds "searches at our borders without probable cause and without a warrant are nonetheless 'reasonable.'"
In making his ruling, Korman, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn, dismissed a lawsuit by graduate student Pascal Abidor, an Islamic studies scholar and a dual French-U.S. citizen, who had his laptop inspected and taken by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in May 2010 while he was on an Amtrak train from Montreal to New York.
The officers also handcuffed him, placed him in a cell and questioned him for several hours, the New York Times said.
The law enforcement agency, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, returned the laptop 11 days later.
Abidor could prove no legal injury from the laptop's confiscation, the Washington Post said.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Press Photographers Association joined Abidor in the case, arguing their members travel with confidential information that should be protected from government scrutiny.
Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, they all alleged the policy violated their rights to privacy and free speech.
"While it is true that laptops may make overseas work more convenient, the precautions plaintiffs may choose to take to 'mitigate' the alleged harm associated with the remote possibility of a border search are simply among the many inconveniences associated with international travel," wrote Korman, who is also a visiting judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California.
That court ruled in March extensive "forensic" searches required reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, but simple checks of photos and other files did not. Korman was not one of the judges in that case.
The ACLU said it was considering an appeal.
Catherine Crump, the ACLU attorney who argued the case in July 2011, said in a statement the searches Korman's ruling addressed were "part of a broader pattern of aggressive government surveillance that collects information on too many innocent people, under lax standards and without adequate oversight."
Homeland Security spokesman Peter Boogaard said, "These checks are essential to enforcing the law, and protecting national security and public safety, always with the shared goals of protecting the American people while respecting civil rights and civil liberties."