Professional Troublemaker

 Jonathan Corbett, Civil Rights Advocate

TSA Out Of Our Pants Is Now Professional Troublemaker

When I started this blog over 5 years ago, I named it for my literal goal: to get the TSA’s hands and radiation literally out of our pants.  While minimizing the TSA’s encroachment on our bodies is still a strong focus for me, we’ve also delved into other areas of civil rights advocacy: “street body scanners” proposed by the NYPD, sending the NSA thousands of FOIA requests (and the FISA court hundreds of motions to force the NSA to delete the data they illegally collected), stopping stop & frisk, and other government abuses.  I think we’ve a bit outgrown the name, and so, “TSA Out Of Our Pants” is now “Professional Troublemaker,” a blog about the journey of a civil rights advocate.

What is a “Professional Troublemaker?”

From the first court filings, my polite insistence that my rights be respected has been met with a certain hostility.  The DoJ has said that my arguments are as a terrorist would make.  The Supreme Court had me deliver my petition to them in a garbage bag.  A county sheriff’s office lied about what evidence of their own misconduct they possessed and attempted to evade service like a deadbeat avoiding child support.  And all over, my substantive complaints were met not with substantive defenses, but procedural shields.

Challenging the status quo is viewed as causing trouble, apparently, and as that is the role I’m looking to take on, I’m happy to accept the title as well.

2016 will be full of new things, as my TSA security interview lawsuit gets heard, I continue with my second year of law school, and I start to delve into second amendment rights, as I’m assuming NYC isn’t going to be too accommodating with the handgun license app I’m filing tomorrow.

Five Year Anniversary

It’s tough to imagine it’s been 5 years since this journey started, but a quick look back to post #1 shows that I filed my first lawsuit against the TSA on November 16th, 2010.  There are a few things going on:

  1. Tomorrow I take my first year law school final exams!  Very excited. :)
  2. My suit against the TSA’s international security interview program is slowly moving forward, as the TSA has finally (10 months and 2 motions later!) filed the “administrative record” that underlines the bases for their decision to implement the program.  More on that coming soon.
  3. My draft legislation to ensure that the TSA can be held accountable when it oversteps its bounds is almost done, at which point I’m going to work on getting some partners on board to submit the bill to Congress.

Thank you for 5 years of support, guys… it’s been awesome. :)

Speaking Tomorrow at 2015 Airport Security Symposium & Conference

If you happen to be in the DC area tomorrow, I’ll be speaking tomorrow on the subject of “TSA Accountability” at the 2015 Airport Security Symposium & Conference, held by the National Association of Airline Passengers. For a very modest registration fee, you can meet myself, Rep. John Mica, Former AK Rep. Sharon Cissna, and many, many others who have been working since at least 2010 to protect your rights at the airport. The NAAP also accepts donations if you’d like to support from afar.

I’ll be publishing my presentation afterwards.

An Act To Hold the TSA Accountable

In 5 years of suing the TSA, I’ve personally encountered an enormous quantity of roadblocks, and I’ve read countless cases that others have put forth that have been similarly shut down without ever reaching the real merits of the case.  Although I’m busily preparing for law school finals at the moment, I’m also slowly making progress on drafting legislation to allow people who are abused by the TSA to successfully litigate by removing those roadblocks.  Some of these changes include:

  • Modifying standards for immunity (sovereign, qualified, etc.)
  • Making sure litigants are entitled to discovery
  • Filling gaps in the Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act that allow the TSA to evade transparency requirements
  • Ensuring that the TSA cannot hide behind claims of secrecy without review of the courts
  • Holding the TSA accountable for the rampant baggage theft that occurs daily

If you have any ideas that you’d like to suggest, whether on what should be in the bill, how to best present the bill to Congress, or even just a clever name for the bill, please get in touch. :)  Remember, this bill is about fixing procedural problems, not disbanding the TSA, removing the body scanners, etc.

My 10 Year Civil Law Anniversary

“How did you get into filing lawsuits?  Like, if I wanted to sue the government, I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

When I first filed suit against the TSA, almost 5 years ago now, I had a little bit of experience. Ten years ago this month, a collection agency ignored me when I told them I didn’t owe any money, proceeding instead to put a disputed account on my credit report.  So, I looked into what my options were, and found out that there are a lot of federal laws surrounding third-party collection of debts.  Collection agencies have to provide some very specific dispute resolution procedures, represent things honestly, and avoid abusive practices.  These laws, found mostly in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 USC § 1692 prohibit things like:

  • Threatening to take an action that it can’t, or doesn’t plan to, take (even “we’ll take you to court if you don’t pay” is illegal if they don’t have any plans to actually sue)
  • Pretending to be an attorney
  • Communicating false information (e.g., to a credit reporting agency)
  • Failing to communicate that a debt is disputed when it is
  • Calling before 8 AM or after 9 PM
  • Repeatedly calling with intent to annoy
  • Sending letters with markings on the outside (e.g., “DEADBEAT”) to embarass you into paying

15 USC § 1692(c) – (f).  They also require notice to be sent in writing with a disclosure of the right to dispute and receive verification of the debt from the original creditor.  § 1692(g).

And so, I filed Corbett v. GC Services, Inc., 05-CV-7680 [PACER subscription required] (S.D.N.Y., Aug. 31, 2005), alleging violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act for not complying with a bunch of the rules above.  I looked up what other lawsuits looked like and wrote my own styled in the same way.  I reviewed the rules of the court.  Then I went down and paid a $250 filing fee (a bargain, as the fee is now $400), and I was in.

Justice was truly blind, as the late U.S. District Judge Richard C. Casey entered the courtroom for our first (and only) status conference with a seeing eye dog.  He seemed irritated at everyone, but denied an oral motion by the defendant to change venue and ordered the case to proceed.  G.C. Services ended up settling for an amount that I’m prohibited from disclosing, thus marking my first victory in civil court.

With that experience and a few other similar ones, when 2010 came around and the TSA was demanding to see us naked in order to fly, I was familiar with the federal courts.  Screwing around with asshole debt collectors was fun and profitable, but civil rights advocacy is fulfilling on a whole new level.  My first year of law school is almost complete, and I look forward to all the difference I can make over the decade to come.

Sometimes I’m a Trusted Traveler, Other Times I May Be a Terrorist

The TSA’s ability to predict which travelers are terrorists and which are not is apparently so good that not only can they identify which people are possibly terrorists, but they can also predict whether those people are in a “terrorist mood” before a particular flight, or are feeling rather non-mass murder-y that day. Much like rhythm-method birth control, being able to pick out “safe days” vs. “unsafe days” allows minimal inconvenience for all parties.

For example, on January 23rd, I was definitely not in touch with my inner jihadi, and so the TSA assigned me Pre-Check status…

Ticket with TSA Pre-Check Endorsement
Ticket with TSA Pre-Check Endorsement

This morning when I woke up, I didn’t even realize that I was feeling like causing some trouble. But luckily, the TSA did, and so they assigned me “selectee” status to dissuade me from bringing any bombs on board…

Ticket with “Selectee” Indicator

If you’re not familiar, the infamous “SSSS” stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection, and is applied to travelers that are on the “Selectee List” (kinda like the “No Fly” list, except they let you fly after petting your genitals before every flight), travelers who trigger an algorithm by doing such things as buying a one-way flight in cash on the day of departure (because Al Qaida can’t afford a round-trip ticket), or at random. It’s unclear why SSSS was assigned to me today or what effect this has for a boarding pass issued at an international airport, as Stockholm didn’t seem keen to treat me any differently, but I for one can’t wait to see what harassment I get when I land in New York.

Obviously I’m being facetious in suggesting that the TSA has the technology to determine which days a dangerous individual might decide to do something bad (and, for the dense within DHS, any suggestion that on some days I might be a terrorist or consider carrying bombs on a plane is also sarcasm). If on some days we’re saying people are trusted enough that they don’t have to take off their shoes, don’t have to take electronics out for separate x-raying, don’t have to go through a body scanner, and are screened using a metal detector calibrated to be less sensitive than usual, but on other days require the most vigorous of security screening, is the system not completely broken?

As far as keeping us secure, it is certainly broken. But is the Pre-Check system really designed to keep us secure, or is it simply to funnel rich people — that is, people with the most influence over the political process — through easier security such that they may continue treating the 99% like cattle without political repercussions?

Supreme Court Denies Review of Nude Body Scanner Lawsuit

With your support, I fought the good fight for over 4.5 years.  Today, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear my petition for review. This brings my court battle to an end.

We’re not without small victories. In 2012, Congress banned body scanners that require visual inspection by a human TSA screener. This also had the side effect of removing all the scanners that used x-rays, thought to be far more dangerous than the millimeter wave scanners. During this time the TSA’s press has gone from bad to abysmal, with the latest news being that 95% of the time the TSA tests its own screeners’ ability to detect contraband, the screeners fail. And without a doubt, the pressure we’ve put on the TSA has held them back from whatever their next intrusive and expensive new toy would have been.

While the courts have covered their ears, we have 2 other branches of government that can make this better. The next step on my end shall be to make noise towards our legislators. I’ll be working with the right people to make that happen, and it’s my hope to help draft legislation to make the situation better. I’ll also be continuing my lawsuit against the TSA’s international security interview program. Perhaps one more victory to add to the list is that the TSA has turned me into a life-long civil rights advocate, as I finish my first year of law school later this year.

Thank you, again, for all your support. I would have stopped long ago without your constant reminders of how important this is to you all. :)

Want to donate to the fight against TSA assholery? PayPal or Bitcoin: 15ftA2938sp7Mnsi8U7wYVmEtd4BRbFnkT

New York Tragedy: The Death of Kalief Browder

I wish I were writing this week about how the TSA misses 95% of weapons when screeners are covertly tested, how they “reassigned” the TSA acting director as a result, or how the TSA hired people on its own terror watch list as screeners. But since apparently no one actually is targeting our skies anymore (as clearly the TSA is not stopping anyone), the TSA is now merely a joke.

What’s not a joke is that a 22-year-old man is dead in New York, a suicide spurred by a systematic violation of his rights by the courts, “New York’s Boldest” (The NYC Department of Corrections), and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office. Kalief Browder was arrested when he was just 16 years old, accused of stealing a backpack. He plead not guilty and asked for a speedy trial, but because of delays by the NYC DA’s office, he was held for 3 years without trial before a judge told the city they had to let him go. A total of 31 court dates were scheduled, most resulting in an adjournment at the DA’s office’s request.

If that’s not bad enough, he experienced significant abuse and neglect on Rikers Island, the notorious NYC jail. Video taped beatings by guards, absurdly long stints in seclusion in solitary confinement, and abuse by his fellow inmates were this man’s life for more than 1,000 days without being convicted of a crime. While there is evidence that he may not have committed the crime in the first place, he likely would have served months — or less — had he merely plead guilty. Traumatized by his experience and struggling to integrate back into society after having those pivotal years taken from him, he took his own life last Saturday.

What does it say about our justice system that asking for a trial can result in spending more time in jail than pleading guilty, even if the result of the trial is a not guilty finding? What kind of judge refuses to release this man on a reasonable bail (or on his own recognizance) once they realize, “Hey! He’s already been in jail longer than we’d keep him if he were tried and convicted?!” What kind of DA postpones a man’s fate dozens of times because he can’t manage to prepare for a simple trial over 36 months? And where did our constitutional right to a speedy trial go??

Amendment VI – “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

I hope there will be protests — I will be there. In the meantime, if you’d like to express your thoughts on the matter: Robert T. Johnson, Bronx District Attorney, 198 East 161st Street, Bronx, NY 10451, ph: 718-590-2312, fax: 718-590-2198,

NSA Ends Mass Phone Spying Program, Patriot Act § 215 to Expire

Although many thought that calling their legislators, protesting, and even whistleblowing were all a waste of time, privacy advocates celebrate a huge win today: the NSA will not seek to renew its quarterly authorization to collect bulk metadata from the phone companies, thus ending the NSA’s database of every single call made ever. Further, both the USA Freedom Act and the bill to extend the Patriot Act as-is have not failed, and it appears both houses of Congress will not be in session again until after § 215 (“the worst of the Patriot Act”) expires.

Now there’s some change I can believe in!!

There’s still reform left to go, of course, but it’s oh so nice to see things headed in the right direction for a change. We should also now pardon the whistleblower whose bravery allowed this reform to happen, but now must live in exile. I do hope the government is working on this.

TSA Backtracks on International Security Interview Program, Says Answering Questions Not Mandatory

Last January, I exposed the TSA’s International Security Interview Program, a secret, never before disclosed TSA mandate requiring U.S.-based airlines to question passengers before returning them to the states. I encountered the program before a flight from London to New York, and I filed suit against this unconstitutional restriction on our rights to travel and to remain silent after the TSA confirmed to me by e-mail that failure to comply = denied boarding:

TSA Reply

While often times a first filing by the opposing party is a pleading responsive to the complaint (in District Court) or the filing of an “administrative record” (in the Court of Appeals), the court, on its own, asked the parties to explain whether there was proper jurisdiction, and the first filing by the TSA not only admitted jurisdiction, but confirmed that it mandates airlines have such security programs and that the airline “must refuse to transport” those who don’t comply:

TSA Reply to Jurisdictional Question

Perhaps realizing that this policy is entirely indefensible, a couple weeks later, without prompting from me or the court, it sent the court a letter to “clarify” any “confusing” statements it made to the court in the previous filing:


Well now, that’s better. But what does happen if you refuse? That question is entirely unanswered, but it seems clear that the TSA previously had a policy of forcing denial of boarding, and has backpedaled on it now that it has been exposed. A huge win.

So, I made the TSA the following settlement offer: detail what compliance passengers are required to give, detail what happens if they refuse, and specifically say that boarding will not be denied. Do this in a public bulletin that you post on your Web site. So far they’ve not responded to my offer, made last week. They probably need time to re-write their policies. :)

Corbett v. TSA – Original Jurisdictional Question Reply by TSA (.pdf)
Corbett v. TSA – Backpedaling by TSA (.pdf)

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