United States District Judge Denise J. Casper ruled against the government’s motion to dismiss David House’s suit against the government. House, co-founder of the Bradley Manning Support Network, had his cell phone; laptop; flash drive; and video camera seized, without consent, by Customs Border Protection (CBP) agents upon return from a Mexican vacation. CBP retained, and searched, House’s electronic hardware for 49 days. The materials were returned after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) intervened. David House appears to have been targeted for his lawful exercise of First Amendment rights to speech and association.
A motion to dismiss may be converted to a motion for summary judgment at the discretion of the district court and, thus, could have ended House’s suit if House had not prevailed on any of his claims.
The Court declined to consider the CBP agents’ subjective motivations for searching House’s electronic devices in regards to any Fourth Amendment claim. However, the court also declined to dismiss House’s Fourth Amendment claim because of the length of detention and an inability for the court to determine that the duration of search was reasonably justified, at this point in the proceedings:
Accepting as true House’s allegations concerning the officials’ subjective motivations for searching his electronic devices, the Court nonetheless may not consider the underlying intent or motivation of the officers when analyzing the viability of a Fourth Amendment claim… The Court declines to do otherwise here at least in regard to House’s Fourth Amendment claim….
The Defendants do not explain the extent to which the limited number of ICE agents certified in computer forensics and their current workload prolonged the detention of House’s electronic devices or how the transferring of the devices affected that delay and the factual record remains undeveloped as to these issues material to the reasonableness of the duration of the seizure and House disputes the rationale proffered by the Defendants for the forty-nine-day delay. The Court concludes that House has asserted a plausible Fourth Amendment claim in this respect and it declines to convert the Defendants’ motion and grant summary judgment in their favor at this juncture and on the record currently before the Court. Accordingly, the Defendants’ motion to dismiss House’s Fourth Amendment Claim is DENIED
The court also declined to dismiss House’s first Amendment claims:
Here, the complaint’s allegations are sufficient to support a reasonable inference that the
agents’ interferences with House’s associational rights were direct and substantial to state a plausible
right of association claim…At this juncture, House has alleged sufficient facts to support his First Amendment claim and any dispute as to what the evidence will or will not show is best answered at summary judgment or trial on the basis of discovered facts, not at this stage on the pleading….That the initial search and seizure occurred at the border does not strip House of his First Amendment rights, particularly given the allegations in the complaint that he was targeted specifically because of his association with the Support Network and the search of his laptop resulted in the disclosure of the organizations, members, supporters donors as well as internal organization communications that House alleges will deter further participation in and support of the organization. Accordingly, the Defendants’ motion to dismiss House’s First Amendment claim is DENIED.
Additionally, United States District Judge Denise J. Casper stayed House’s motions for injunctive relief. The motions demanded that the government reveal to whom they disclosed or disseminated information contained on his electronic devices; demanded that the government return all information obtained from House’s electronic devices; and demanded that if the information could not be returned, be otherwise destroyed and expunged. The motions for injunctive relief are preserved for later rulings.
An initial scheduling conference will be held May 7th, 2012.