USA: Constitution-Free Zone

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On January 30th, as soon as a US-born NASA engineer set foot back on US soil, agents from Homeland Security placed him in a holding cell and demanded that he give up the PIN to his cellphone.

Sidd Bikkannavar, an employee of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, was stopped and questioned about his South Asian heritage, although he was born in the United States and his personal information was already known to officials from his Global Entry application.

Bikkanavar was shown a “Blue Paper,” which stated that he was obliged to give up the PIN number to his phone — although, according to Hassan Shibly, executive director of CAIR in Florida, American citizens are under no such obligation.

Thus Bikkannavar was denied his rights as an American citizen because he was racially profiled.

On the other hand, perhaps none of us has all the rights we think we do.

The NASA engineer’s experience is a sobering reminder that — since the Patriot Act was signed — there are no Fourth Amendment protections within a one-hundred mile deep coastal and border zone. If you live within 100 miles of Canada, Mexico, or the ocean, you live in what the ACLU calls a Constitution free zone.

WIRED recently offered travelers some suggestions for keeping prying eyes out of your personal data. In a nutshell — don’t re-enter the country with much to show authorities if you don’t want to have to change all your passwords after your Constitutional rights have been violated. If you’re a non-citizen, it’s trickier.

Most Americans, if they were in Bikkannavar’s position, would give up their rights in a heartbeat if it meant not being delayed. Most Americans, if in the engineer’s shoes, would give up their rights in a second if it meant not being inconvenienced by the confiscation of an expensive gadget.

But this is a calculation no one should have to make.

The Fourth Amendment unambiguously requires warrants and probable cause to protect citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. What happened to Bikkannavar was not simply unreasonable — it was a violation of his Constitutional rights:

Amendment IV — The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The “Constitution Free Zone” is only 100 miles deep but it affects approxmiate 200 million Americans:

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