In 2008, it came to light that Homeland Security had the authority to take your laptop, hold it indefinitely, and search it whenever without warrant or probable cause. Last week, a judge rightly ruled that that's bananas.
The case in question the computer of an American citizen who was returning from a trip to South Korea. DHS confiscated his laptop and searched it six months later, all without a warrant. Judge Jeffrey White's ruling states that while customs officials certainly have the right to search a laptop as part of a border search, there should be limits to the amount of time they can hold such a device and search it without going through appropriate legal channels. From the ruling:
Hanson was not arrested on January 27, 2009, and for that reason the court finds the government's reliance on the "search incident to a valid arrest" line of cases to be inapposite. Accordingly, because the court concludes that June search required a warrant, and because it is undisputed that the search was conducted without a warrant, Hanson's motion is GRANTED IN PART on this basis.
So where does that leave us? Well, your laptop can still be confiscated and searched. But you're now more likely to get it back in a timely fashion, and much less likely to find out nine months after the fact that they've uncovered evidence of an unpaid parking ticket buried deep in your hard drive. [CNET]