Israel's Top Court Bars Random Drug Searches of Airport Passengers

Chen Maanit
Chen Maanit
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A policeman at Ben-Gurion airport.
A policeman at Ben-Gurion airport. The subjects have no connection to the content of the article.Credit: Moti Milrod
Chen Maanit
Chen Maanit

The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the law does not permit the police to search a person’s body or luggage even at a border crossing point, in the absence of a concrete suspicion, overturning a drug trafficking conviction of a man who argued he was searched without authority.

The law permits a search without a warrant at airports, border crossings and on airplanes and ships if the search is necessary to uphold the law – a lower standard than in most cases.

In his case, however, the defendant claimed the search that led to his conviction when he landed in Israel from Amsterdam was arbitrary, that he had not aroused any specific suspicion and that he therefore should have been acquitted.

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In the search, authorities at Ben-Gurion International Airport found 55 marijuana seeds in 13 packages and a package of the psychedelic drug Psilocin. The man was convicted by the district court for importing a dangerous drug and sentenced to public service and probation.

He challenged his conviction, and two of the three Supreme Court justices on a panel headed by Justice Yosef Elron overturned it.

Justice Elron, who was joined by Justice Anat Baron, ruled that, in order to prevent the police from acting arbitrarily, a specific procedure for searches at border points must be established even in cases in which no concrete suspicion exists. “The police have a responsibility to show that the search is necessary for the purpose for which it is intended,” Elron wrote, adding that the search must be proportional, based on a minimal factual basis and without violating the individual’s privacy beyond what is necessary.

Baron wrote that an arbitrary search aimed at finding drugs on the person or in the luggage of an arriving airport passenger without an indication of any suspicion that the passenger is carrying a dangerous drug represents an unacceptable violation of the person’s privacy and autonomy over their body.

In a dissenting opinion, the third justice on the panel, David Mintz, wrote that in light of the nature of international drug smuggling, it is of major importance to conduct random searches for the presence of drugs on the bodies and in the luggage of airport passengers. Random checks, he argued, can uncover illegal activity and deter drug importers operating at airports or who work through couriers who do not arouse suspicion. Mintz did not take issue with the importance of a procedure to prevent the police from acting arbitrarily – but in this case, he said, the search should not have been deemed improper.

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