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Week 20 (2018)

Week of May 14, 2018 through May 18, 2018

Gordon v. CIGNA Corp. (Wynn 5/15/2018): The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court to hold that an insurance company was not required to make up the difference between the policy amount decedent had paid for and the policy amount he had been approved for under his plan. The Court found that the errors leading to decedent’s reduced coverage resulted from mistakes by his employer, which administered the life insurance plan, not the insurance company. Accordingly, the insurance company did not breach any fiduciary duty it may have had and thus was entitled to summary judgment. Full Opinion

Blount v. Clarke (Niemeyer 5/15/2018): The Fourth Circuit vacated the relevant orders of the district court granting habeas relief and remanded the case with instructions to dismiss Plaintiff Blount’s habeas application with prejudice under its decision in Surratt.  The issue was whether Plaintiff Blount, who was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 118 years’ imprisonment for nonhomicide crimes that he committed when he was 15 years old, could be issued a writ of habeas corpus even after the state government had reduced his sentence.  The Court found that the Supreme Court’s decision in Graham v. Florida, which prohibited juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide crimes from being sentenced to life without parole, did not preclude the state government from reducing Plaintiff’s sentence without the option for habeas corpus.  Thus, the Court reasoned that Plaintiff’s application for a writ of habeas corpus under Graham was moot; accordingly, he could not be granted habeas relief. Full Opinion

Highlight Case

United States v. Kolsuz, No. 16-4687

Decided: May 9, 2018 (amended May 18, 2018)

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the opinion of the District Court to hold that the Border Patrol justifiably and legally completed a forensic search on Plaintiff’s phone.

The Suit arose when Hamza Kolsuz was detained at Washington Dulles International Airport while attempting to exit the United State’s because federal customs agents found firearms parts in his luggage. After arresting Kolsuz, Border Patrol seized his phone and performed a month-long, off-site forensic analysis on the phone, yielding a nearly 900-page report cataloguing the phone’s data. Kolsuz was later indicted on three counts: (i) attempting to export firearms parts on the USML without a license, in violation of the Arms Export Control Act, 22 U.S.C. §§ 2278(b) and (c); (ii) attempting to smuggle goods from the United States in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 554(a); and (iii) conspiracy to commit those offenses, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371.

The question on Appeal was whether the forensic search of Kolsuz’s phone, and the associated invasion of Kolsuz’s privacy, was justified under the border search exception. The boarder search exception permits Border Patrol Agents to perform routine searches on persons entering or exiting the United States, and permits them to perform nonroutine searches provided that there is at least reasonable suspicion to do so.  The distinction between routine and nonroutine searches is somewhat ambiguous, but ultimately turns on the extent the search will violate the personal privacy of the individual. In light of this parameter, the Court held that a forensic search of a smartphone is a nonroutine searches. Thus, the Border Patrol needed to have at least reasonable suspicion in order to have justifiably completed the search.

In determining whether the Border Patrol had reasonable suspicion, the Court first analyzed the purpose behind the border search exception. The Court noted that the justification behind the border search exception is broad enough to accommodate not only the direct interception of contraband as it crosses the border, but also the prevention and disruption of ongoing efforts to export contraband illegally. Furthermore, the Court recognized that a border search may be conducted even after the individual is arrested and no longer in a position to cross the border. In so doing, the Court rejected Kolsuz’s argument that a forensic search required a warrant based on probable cause because the search was ancillary to Kolsuz’s arrest, and not part of a border search.

Instead the Court explained that the border search exception is not rendered inapplicable because a search initiated at a border ultimately is conducted at some physical or temporal remove. Additionally, the Court emphasized that there was a direct link between the predicate for the search and the rationale for the border exception: to prevent contraband from entering or leaving the country. In the instant case, the Court noted that the agents who searched Kolsuz’s phone reasonably believed that their search would reveal not only evidence of the export violation they already had detected, but also “information related to other ongoing attempts to export illegally various firearms parts.”   Thus, there was a direct link between the predicate for the search and the rationale for the border exception. Finally, the Court declined to rule on whether more than reasonable suspicion was necessary to conduct the search and instead found that the agents justifiably relied on courts precedent that reasonable suspicion alone was enough to conduct a non-routine search.

Full Opinion

Kirsten Peterson