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Child molester goes free but your digital data is protected

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
March 11th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The case was disturbing, but the court's ruling is one that most Americans may agree with. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the government does not have the right to search and seize your electronic data when you cross the border.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The case is still disturbing because it involves a known child molester who was caught for child pornography at the border but argued that agents did not have the right to search his electronic data where they found the offensive material.

Officers in Lukeville, Arizona stopped Howard Cotterman at the border and ran his name. They found he had prior convictions for child molestation. Suspicious, they seized laptops and cameras he had in his vehicle.

When they went to search those devices, they found they were protected by passwords. They released Cotterman but kept his laptops and a camera, which they later analyzed. The forensic examination revealed that behind his passwords were numerous images of child pornography and even images of himself molesting a child.

Some files had been deleted, and they uncovered those as well. Aware that he was going to be discovered, Cotterman fled to Australia where he was later arrested for attempting to flee prosecution. Back int he United States, Cotterman based his defense on the insistence the initial search was unreasonable. Although lower courts ruled against him, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor.

The ruling now likely results in letting a child-predator return to the streets, but simultaneously it protects the fundamental rights of all Americans to be secure in their persons and "papers" from unreasonable search and seizure. The court ruled in this case that the officers who seized Cottermans's laptops did not satisfy the standards for a search.

The question is one of Constitutional rights, as opposed to dealing with a singular, and allegedly heinous criminal. The Fourth Amendment protects all Americans from having their electronic data systematically seized and reviewed. An exception had been made for those crossing the border, but under the latest ruling, Fourth Amendment protections may also extend to those persons.

When advocates for the government suggested the government doesn't yet have the ability to scan every electronic device, Judge McKeown wrote, "It is little comfort to assume that the government - for now - does not have the time or resources to seize and search the millions of devices that accompany the millions of travelers who cross our borders. It is the potential unfettered dragnet effect that is troublesome."

The ruling now means that Americans who password protect their data, have a reasonable expectation that such data will be protected from government intrusion. Of course, they must make a reasonable effort to protect their data, such as a password or encryption.

It is unfortunate to see that a victory for all Americans is also a victory for an alleged criminal, however our system is based in part on the notion that it is better to let the guilty go free than to condemn the innocent. Let's hope that the authorities and community are watching Cotterman in the event he should be truly guilty.

Meanwhile, set your passwords on your electronic devices, if you wish to be protected from necessary government intrusion.

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