Wikileaks' Manning supporter can sue US government

A supporter of Bradley Manning has won the right to sue the federal government over a border search-and-seizure that agents conducted in 2010.

David House, an MIT researcher, was allowed to  pursue a case against the government which was bought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  The Union claimed that House had been targeted solely because he was involved with Bradley Manning Support Network.

ACLU Staff Attorney Catherine Crump told Ars Technica that despite the government’s broad assertions that it can take and search any laptop, diary or smartphone without any reasonable suspicion, the court said the government cannot use that power to target political speech.

US customs agents pulled House off a plane at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in November 2010. They searched House’s bags, then took him to a detention room and questioned him for 90 minutes about his relationship to Manning. They then confiscated his laptop computer, a thumb drive, and a digital camera from House and demanded his encryption keys.

The DHS held onto House’s equipment for 49 days and returned it only after the ACLU sent a strongly worded letter.

House points out that he was not questioned about anything “relating to border control, customs, trade, immigration, or terrorism, and at no point did agents suggest that plaintiff had broken the law or that his computer contained any illegal material.”

In other words, what the DHS did was use the customs search to carry out an illegal search of House’s laptop on another matter. This broke the First Amendment rights of speech and political association and the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

The government claimed that House was asking the court to “create a new exception for electronic devices from the Government’s authority to conduct routine searches of closed containers at the border. However the judge did not buy that argument and allowed the lawsuit to continue.