British police detained David Miranda, Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald's partner, at a London airport for nine hours Sunday and seized various electronics in an apparent effort to repossess information shared by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Attorneys told U.S. News that American authorities likely could have conducted a similar detention and seizure if Miranda was traveling through a U.S. airport.
Miranda was en route to Rio de Janeiro after visiting Berlin to meet with Laura Poitras, who along with Greenwald was given classified documents by Snowden on government phone and Internet surveillance programs. Miranda was bringing files to Poitras and returning to Brazil with encrypted files for Greenwald, The New York Times reported. The trip was paid for by the Guardian, the newspaper said.
"It is unclear how they knew," George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley told U.S. News. "It is certainly reasonable to suspect wiretaps considering the record of the Obama administration and the history of the British government."
Under a hypothetical stopover at an American airport, Turley said, "if they believed he was in possession of classified material, they could have conducted the same search" of Miranda's possessions.
American authorities have greater leeway to conduct searches at borders and international crossings than elsewhere in the country, Turley noted.
And although passing through customs would have entitled Miranda to an attorney – unlike the London interrogation, where police invoked the Terrorism Act 2000, which allows nine hours without a lawyer – Turley said that right could theoretically be withheld.
"Once you're past the customs counter you're afforded all the rights of someone who is within the United States," he said. "As Snowden himself demonstrated, there's a vague status when someone is at an airport and not yet processed by customs. ... It is not until your passport is stamped that you're technically in the country."
Donald Dripps, an expert on criminal procedure law at the University of San Diego School of Law, agreed with Turley that a similar search could happen at an American airport.
"Under current U.S. law, computer files, including text files, receive no greater Fourth Amendment protection than other effects," Dripps explained to U.S. News. "To seize computer files they need only an ordinary warrant based on probable cause to believe the search will discover evidence of an offense."
According to Dripps, under ordinary circumstances "British law imposes more regulations on police conducting searches of computer files than does U.S. law."
Miranda was ultimately released by British police, who allowed him to return to Brazil after reportedly seizing his cellphone, thumb drives, a laptop, camera, DVDs and video game consoles.