The blue-shirted TSA employees of which all travelers are familiar hold the job title, “Transportation Security Officer.” But despite the “officer” title emblazoned upon the plastic badge on their chest, TSA screeners are not law enforcement officers, do not have the authority to make arrests or hold travelers for any length of time, and if you break the law at a checkpoint, their only option is to call the real police to deal with the situation.
Unfortunately, that plastic badge appears to occasionally cause TSA screeners to “forget” the boundaries of their authority.
Last September, Jessica Lundquist was traveling through Burbank Hollywood Airport (a smaller commuter airport in northern Los Angeles) when a body scanner alarmed. In my experience from watching checkpoints, body scanners seem to alert on somewhere around 25% – 50% of passengers who pass through them, the overwhelming majority of which are patted down and found to have nothing. The alerts are false positives, on machines that cost us billions of dollars, by an agency that spends billions of dollars a year annually.
But, Ms. Lundquist did something that TSA screeners don’t like: when told she would have to submit to a “groin search” to “resolve” the alarm, and the screener clarified that they would “need” to touch her genitals, she refused consent; she said no. Notwithstanding that TSA screeners are not law enforcement and it is not a crime to refuse to continue the screening process, being told no hurts their ego, and so a screener, backed up by two supervisors, did what they may not: they told her she may not leave, and that they would force her to comply if she did not:
I feel for Ms. Lundquist because TSA screeners made the same exact threat to me in 2011. I knew that TSA screeners were unable to force a traveler to comply, and that their only lawful option is to allow the traveler to leave the checkpoint into the non-secure area, so I continued my refusal until they let me go. But, believing these “federal officers,” and under threat of forcible compulsion, and after making and being refused another lawful request — to have her screening video recorded — Ms. Lundquist submitted to the search, wherein the TSA touched her vulva and buttocks without her consent. They, of course, found nothing.
Ms. Lundquist retained me as counsel, and yesterday I filed suit on her behalf in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. These screeners violated TSA policy, they broke the law, and they disregarded my client’s constitutional rights under both the First and Fourth Amendments. I look forward to continuing to advocate for Jessica and to remind the TSA, once again, that if they exceed the scope of their authority, there will be consequences.