TSA Vs. 4th Amendment: You’re Free To Board A Plane, But You’re Not Free To Leave The Screening Area


Tim Cushing
Tech Dirt
April 8, 2014

We’ve often discussed the TSA’s ridiculous pantomime deployed with the pretense that vague and ever-shifting rules — most written as a reaction to previous failed attacks — somehow make flying safer, even if these policies have failed to prevent attackers from boarding planes or even sniff out potential terrorists in order to apprehend them. The entire process has been ridiculed (as all knee-jerk responses should be) to no end, which is just as well considering the TSA program itself is apparently going to be endless.

tsaabiWhile we’ve examined the security theater players’ parts, we really haven’t spent much time examining the stage itself. Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, David Post asks just how many of our rights are we supposed to give up for the illusion of safety?

I started watching the TSA video that was running on the monitors overhead, and I was struck when the narrator said: ”Once you enter the screening area, you will not be permitted to leave without TSA permission.” Really?! Actually, I am permitted to leave without TSA permission, whether they like it or not, because the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on “unreasonable . . . seizures” gives me that permission. We have a word for this, too, in the law, when government agents don’t allow us to leave freely: ”being in custody.” And the government cannot put me in custody when they have absolutely no reason to believe that I have broken the law – the 4th Amendment prohibits that. Nor can they say “you’ve consented to being in custody when you go to the airport,” any more than they can say “you’ve consented to being in custody whenever you leave your home, so we can grab you and hold you whenever we damn please.”

Post’s followup discussion with TSA agents didn’t add much in the way of clarification. The agents told him that he wasn’t free to leave but he certainly wasn’t being detained. Not “in custody,” but not allowed to exit the screening area — just one of the many contradictions that defines the TSA’s bureaucratic morass.

Orin Kerr has responded in another post, stating that whether or not the “seizure” is “unreasonable,” caselaw backs up the TSA’s position.

The “right to leave” argument was first litigated in the early 1970s when airport security screening was new. At the time, the Fifth Circuit clearly rejected the argument. See United States v. Skipwith, 482 F.2d 1272, 1277 (5th Cir. 1973). The Fifth Circuit reasoned that an alternative approach would give hijackers a way to probe for poor security practices and then only go through security when it was lax.

The logic behind this opinion is mostly sound, but this is something that should be clarified by the agency relying on this caselaw. When someone asks whether or not they’re being detained or are in custody, they should be told that they are — even if said custody technically ends when they board their flight. This may make more people unhappy, but the TSA’s never really been a people-friendly operation.

If there was ever going to be an opportunity to move caselaw to a bit more reasonable point in relation to consent, custody and security checkpoints, that door was slammed shut by the 9/11 attacks. From the Ninth Circuit decision concurring with the Fifth Circuit’s 1970s decision:

[R]equiring that a potential passenger be allowed to revoke consent to an ongoing airport security search makes little sense in a post-9/11 world. Such a rule would afford terrorists multiple opportunities to attempt to penetrate airport security by “electing not to fly” on the cusp of detection until a vulnerable portal is found. This rule would also allow terrorists a low-cost method of detecting systematic vulnerabilities in airport security, knowledge that could be extremely valuable in planning future attacks.

In other words, extenuating circumstances, dating back to the 1970s, have turned an airplane ticket into a waiver of Fourth Amendment rights. While I appreciate the fact that restoring these rights would make it much easier for would-be attackers to probe for security holes, the same rationale makes anyone attempting (or asking) to leave the screening area instantly suspicious — and subject to additional searches and screenings.

This aligns very much with the general law enforcement view on “reasonable suspicion” in terms of checkpoints and roadblocks. Any driver who turns down a side road or performs a U-turn in order to avoid a police checkpoint is presumed to be guilty of… something and therefore should be pursued and stopped. At no point is this driver ever in “custody,” and yet, he or she isn’t free to leave the area, even when the driver is several cars back in the line. This would seem to violate the Fourth Amendment as well, but courts in many states have determined that simply avoiding a checkpoint is, in itself, enough reasonable suspicion to allow officers to pull over the vehicle.

Other courts have argued that a legal maneuver to avoid a checkpoint is not enough to indicate reasonable suspicion, but the reality here (as lawyers caution) is that drivers avoiding a DUI checkpoint or other police roadblock should expect to be pulled over and questioned. In the end, the only practical difference between these two rulings is the admissibility of evidence in court. At the point where the Fourth Amendment should matter, it doesn’t. It’s only after the fact.

Although they aren’t told explicitly, simply entering the screening area is giving consent to the TSA to search you and your belongings. Should you wish to revoke this consent, you would need to make that decision before reaching the screening area. Practically speaking, this means finding another way to reach your destination. There’s no way to assert your rights and still board a plane, even if you haven’t broken any laws and aren’t planning to.

Caselaw (and some common sense) supports the TSA’s claim that travelers are not free to leave the screening area. But the TSA should be honest about it, rather than simply expect all travelers to be perfectly fine with waiving their rights for the “privilege” of boarding a plane. And the courts should be wary of issuing more caselaw supporting the expansion of “constitution-free zones” to anywhere the TSA (or other government agencies) might be operating.


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