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US Customs Agents Can Search Letters at Airports

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The 9th Circuit upheld the right of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents to search an elderly man's FedEx package at an international airport, and to open and read letters containing sexually suggestive language apparently addressed to an 8-year-old Filipino girl.

The letter's author, John Seljan, was convicted of child pornography and sex tourism, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison - a sentence shortened by the fact that he was 87 at the time. He appealed his conviction on the grounds that Customs agents had no right to examine personal correspondence without a warrant.

The court ruled 10-1 that agents did not violate Seljan's Fourth Amendment rights by reading the letters while searching for contraband at an international airport. The judges said international airports are tantamount to an international border, where reasonable searches are allowed.

These searches led agents to discover several letters addressed to young children in the Philippines, describing his desire to engage in sex acts with them. An investigation revealed that Seljan had traveled to the Philippines 43 times between 1992 and 2003, and had bragged to neighbors about his collection of child porn.

Seljan was arrested at the Los Angeles International Airport, after agents searched his luggage and discovered more letters, child pornography and 52 photographs of Seljan engaged in sex acts with Filipino children.

Waiving his Miranda rights, Seljan insisted that he had been "sexually educating" children aged 8 to 13 for about 20 years.

The appeals court upheld the denial of his motion to suppress the incriminating evidence found in his FedEx packages. That search was "reasonable in manner and scope," Judge Clifton wrote.

Judge Kozinski dissented, saying the majority opinion authorizes the government "to read every scrap of paper that crosses our borders, whether in a pocket or purse, a package, suitcase or envelope."

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