There are currently several programmes on television where surveillance or police are followed at airports where they take travellers aside to open their suitcases for inspection. On these occasions, the police will ask the owner of the suitcase to open it to then inspect its contents.
In asking the traveller to open the suitcase, one may feel that the traveller has a choice whether or not to open the suitcase and that they can refuse the police inspection of the contents, however, the reality is that the traveller has no choice.
Constitutionally, the authorities must respect an individual’s communication secrecy and right to privacy. As a result, letters sent by e-mail or post cannot be opened unless the court orders their opening, nor can they simply enter people’s homes. So, why can they search your private belongings that are in the suitcase, even if you don’t give permission to do so?
The key is in the moment of opening the suitcase. This is because the police cannot simply stop you on the street and ask you to open the suitcase you are carrying. But when you contract a trip from one country to another and you carry a suitcase, this automatically implies consent to open and search the suitcase, as also decided by the Spanish Constitutional Court in 2006. This is a limitation on the person’s right to privacy. It does not matter whether the suitcase contains only personal belongings or also correspondence, the suitcase itself can be opened. However if the suitcase contains a letter for later delivery, this letter cannot be opened to read the contents, since the letter is still protected by the secrecy of communications.
Selena Escandell Beutick