May 30, 2013 at 6:42 PM ET
A former MIT researcher was returning from a vacation in Mexico in November 2010, stopping at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, when he was met by federal agents who seized his cellphone, laptop, USB thumb drive and video camera. The reason? The man was a supporter of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, the central figure in the military's WikiLeaks scandal.
David House was among those working with the Bradley Manning Support Network, a group trying to raise money for Manning's legal defense. While that may not sound like a major concern for the feds, at the time the government was heavily investigating Manning, then held in military confinement and charged with mishandling and leaking classified data.
While House's cellphone was given back to him the same day it was seized, his other electronics were returned to him about a month after they were confiscated — and plumbed for data. In a court settlement between the ACLU and the federal government signed last week, the government agreed to destroy all the information agents had copied and saved from House's electronics.
The settlement with the Department of Homeland Security, as well as federal customs and border enforcement agencies, came after a judge rejected the government's motion to dismiss the ACLU lawsuit, which challenged the "suspicionless" search and seizure.
"People have a great deal of private sensitive information on their electronic devices and the government shouldn't be searching all of that information without a reasonable belief that searching someone's devices will turn up evidence of wrongdoing," ACLU attorney Catherine Crump told NBC News Thursday.
"We were pleased that the government was willing to negotiate in settlement negotiations — David House's principal goal was to get the government to destroy any information that revealed the supporters of Bradley Manning Support Network."
(NBC News has reached out to both David House and the Department of Justice for comment on the case, and will update this report if we hear back.)
Judge Denise J. Casper noted in her ruling that the Supreme Court has said U.S. border searches are reasonable and don't require a warrant — what the government argued — but First Amendment (freedom of speech and association) and Fourth Amendment (prohibition of unreasonable search-and-seizure) freedoms were also at stake here:
Although the agents may not need to have any particularized suspicion for the initial search and seizure at the border for the purpose of the Fourth Amendment analysis, it does not necessarily follow that the agents ... may seize personal electronic devices containing expressive materials, target someone for their political association and seize his electronic devices and review the information pertinent to that association and its members and supporters simply because the initial search occurred at the border.
The government has 30 days now in which to destroy its copy of House's personal data, and provide sworn affidavits to the ACLU and House that such action was taken, Crump said.
Meanwhile, Manning recently admitted to having leaked hundreds of thousands of government documents to WikiLeaks as part of an effort to "spark a domestic debate on the role of the military." He is set to face court martial June 3 on other charges, including "aiding the enemy."