Monday, June 22, 2009

TSA encounter sparks lawsuit

In April, Transportation Security Administration agents detained Steve Bierfeldt at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport for no other reason than that he was carrying $4,700 in cash. The move immediately proved to be something of a public relations disaster, since the cash belonged to Rep. Ron Paul's libertarian-oriented Campaign for Liberty, of which Bierfeldt is the director of development, and the political activist used his cell phone to record the incident (mp3), including abusive language directed his way. Now the confrontation has sparked a lawsuit against the TSA, with the American Civil Liberties Union arguing Bierfeldt's case.

In the wake of Bierfeldt's detention, TSA brass made it clear they knew they had stepped in a PR mess as the confrontation immediately made the rounds of the Internet and television. On its official blog, the TSA conceded:

A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employee and members of the St. Louis Airport Police Department can be heard on the audio recording. The tone and language used by the TSA employee was inappropriate. TSA holds its employees to the highest professional standards. TSA will continue to investigate this matter and take appropriate action.

But the TSA never backed down from the idea that carrying cash is enough reason to detail travelers or corrected its agents' refusal to answer Bierfeldt's pointed but polite questions about the legitimate scope of their authority. That suggests that the practice will continue, moderated only by the occasional apology directed to politically connected victims. That's not enough for Bierfeldt. He says:

"Most Americans would be surprised to learn that TSA considers simply carrying cash to be a basis for detention and questioning. I hope the court makes clear that my detention by TSA agents was unconstitutional and stops TSA from engaging in these unlawful searches and arrests. I do not want another innocent American to have to endure what I went through."

The ACLU is involved for the same reason -- to make sure the TSA goes beyond an embarrassed mea culpa and alters its procedures so that other travelers are no longer at risk of suspicionless detention and questioning. Larry Schwartztol, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, protests, "Mr. Bierfeldt's experience represents a troubling pattern of TSA attempting to transform its valid but limited search authority into a license to invade people's privacy in a manner that would never be accepted outside the airport context."

The ACLU's complaint (PDF) against Janet Napolitano, in her capacity as Secretary of Homeland Security, points out that the TSA's authority to search airline passengers is limited to specific threats such as guns and bombs. Suspicionless searches of people who pose no apparent danger fall outside that limited, court-recognized exception to the Fourth Amendment.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the TSA's actions to be in violation of the Constitution and to permanently enjoin the government "from authorizing or conducting suspicionless pre-flight searches of passengers or their belongings for items other than weapons and explosives."

The suit also seeks legal costs and any other relief deemed proper by the court.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting, they never answered his question (Am I required by law to tell you where the money came from?), why should he have to answer theirs? Were they refusing to answer his question? They accused him of refusing to answer their question. Does one have to answer questions to prove their innocents without even being charged of a crime? A TSA officer answered "Yes" to his question, (Am I being detained?). Which is this incident closer to; guilty until proven innocent, or innocent until proven guilty? Has money every blown up a plane? Has anyone ever died from being assaulted from someone trying to give them a money paper cut? Is this a police state or is this freedom?

July 9, 2009 6:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it is a police state.

July 22, 2009 4:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People like this make me happy. It's nice to see good Americans reminding the government where the boundries are.

August 19, 2009 4:35 AM  

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