Are there limits on what US Customs and Border Protection can do?

I’ve been watching “To Catch a Smuggler” on the National Geographic channel lately. It follows CBP around as they interview travelers and inspect packages. I don’t THINK it’s staged.

It’s pretty common for them to open boxes or take things apart that they believe are suspicious. In one episode, there was what appeared to be a very expensive piece of equipment that they drilled holes in and pried it apart. Sure enough, there was drugs in it. But if there hadn’t been, they would have destroyed a very expensive piece of equipment. In the same episode, they drilled a hole in a drum (the musical kind) but didn’t find anything. It probably wouldn’t have affected the playability of the drum but it certainly didn’t do its value any favors.

Are there limits on what they can do or is anything fair game?

I can’t answer your question but can add my own personal experience. Coming across the border from Canada, the agent demanded my wallet and dug through it including my credit cards and cash. I don’t think a regular LEO has the authority to do such a thing, but customs apparently does.

I also understand that their authority extends 100 miles from the border; effectively giving them uncomfortably broad powers over a large percentage of the population that is otherwise unconstitutional to other government agents. The Constitution in the 100-Mile Border Zone | American Civil Liberties Union.

Whoah! I didn’t know about the 100 miles of the border thing, interesting.

And as any international airport is a border control point, even more US citizens could be covered by this border search exception if somebody decided to try to interpret it that way. It takes a long time to reach the Supreme Court, and in the meantime…

They’re not supposed to damage private property, and there is even a process to make a claim. I have no knowledge about how successful people have been doing this. And it does seem overly complex and prohibitive.

There have been assorted cases about what they can examine and hold and for how long. Different circuits vary, and the courts seem to be getting increasingly protective of things like cellphones because they are essentially a travelling copy of a large assembly of personal details.

The few cases I recall reading about, the courts basically seem to be saying - the special powers (search without probably cause) are for detecting contraband and illegal items. Anything deeper into personal information, not goods - like, “let’s keep and crack your phone to analyze it to see if you’ve been consorting with terrorists” needs a much deeper level of probable cause than “I don’t like your attitude, so I’ll keep your phone”.

IIRC, there was also a case working its way through the appeals courts about border guards stopping traffic from a US town near the Mexican border and demanding ID from the drivers or passengers to prove they are American citizens.