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Professional Troublemaker ®

 Jonathan Corbett, Civil Rights Attorney

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foia

How to Request TSA Checkpoint Security Video (FOIA/Public Records Requests)

I am approached by potential clients multiple times per week describing pat-downs gone wrong. Sometimes, the case is black and white: “They strip searched me in the back room” is a scenario where there is no argument that the screeners were “just doing their jobs.” Often times, however, the situation they describe is abusive but close enough to TSA’s “legitimate” procedure that proving it crossed the line may be nearly impossible. These include allegations that the pat-down was done in a way to cause pain (generally, by hitting the groin area), or that screeners used the pat-down as an opportunity to grope rather than search. In these cases, I generally advise clients to get the CCTV video of the incident.

“You can do that? How?”

Every state in the country, plus the federal government, has some variety of public records law.  They may call it a “Freedom of Information” act or law (FOIA or FOIL), a “Sunshine” law, or merely a “Public Records Law,” but the idea is that members of the public have some right to request records from the government.  Records include pretty much anything, from paper documents to e-mails to video.  But, keep in mind that every state has a different version of a public records law, so the steps below are the general process in many states; an attorney can help you confirm that you’re doing what’s right for your state.

Public Records Request Contact at Miami International AirportStep 1: Find the Video Owner.  Security cameras at the airport are typically not owned or operated by TSA.  The footage generally belongs to the airport authority, which is most commonly the county in which the airport is located.  Google for “[airport name] public records request” and you will find that most airports have a process, or at least an e-mail address, for submitting public records requests.  If so, follow their procedure.  If not, you may have to dig around the county’s Web site, or call the county and ask.

Step 2: Write Your Request.  Public records requests generally don’t have to adhere to some kind of form: you simply ask for what you want and tell them how to get it to you.  What you want to make sure you do is describe the video you want in a way that is specific enough that they can find it.  Example: “All video showing a TSA pat-down of a blonde woman, 50 years old, 5’3″, 150 lbs., wearing a pink shirt and white pants, at XYZ airport, Terminal 1, South Checkpoint, second security lane from the left, on 1/1/2021, between 10:10 AM and 10:30AM.”

Step 3: Wait.  Send in your request and set a reminder on your calendar for 30 days, and don’t think about it again until then.  Sometimes you’ll have your records in a week, other times it takes much longer, but you cannot speed it up by contacting them every few days. If you don’t have your request in 30 days, then consider your request ignored.

Step 4: Deal with Pushback.  Sometimes, the airport authority will not provide the video, often citing that it is “Sensitive Security Information” (“SSI”).  However, as a general matter, TSA does not classify checkpoint video as SSI unless it shows computer screens or sensitive documents or similar.  Frankly, these security videos have never, in my experience, been detailed enough to make out what was on a computer screen.  An attorney can help you if your request is denied.  Likewise, if your request is ignored, and after 30 days you are unable to reach anyone to give you a status update, you may wish to have an attorney take a look.

Step 5: Review the Video.  Pretend you’re a random person on a jury.  In fact, perhaps have some objective friends watch it with you.  Based only on what you see in the video, are you convinced that this government employee went too far?  If the video has a clear view of the search but the misconduct simply isn’t apparent on tape, you may need to let this one go.  No one wants to let an abuser get away with it, but sadly justice isn’t done every time, and you don’t want to waste your time and money fighting a battle that simply can’t be won.  On the other hand, the video may make the misconduct quite clear.  In this case, send it on to an attorney for a professional opinion.

The most important part of this process is that you start it quickly.  CCTV videos are usually discarded on a rolling basis, most commonly after 30 days.  Failing to request the video within this retention timeframe doesn’t just deprive you of the video, but it may also allow the other side to suggest that your delay resulted in evidence being destroyed, and may work against you in your lawsuit.  Save a receipt for the sending of your request, whether it be an e-mail confirmation, a screen shot, or a certified mail receipt if you went the old-fashioned way (and there is certainly nothing wrong with that!).


This post describes a general means of filing a legal request. This is not legal advice, which can only be accomplished by having a licensed attorney review your specific circumstances. If in doubt — or even if not — you are encouraged to contact a competent attorney for a consultation.

Jon to Judge: Release the Names of the TSA Screeners Who Harassed Me

A part of my lawsuit from when the TSA detained me in FLL airport in 2011 relates to a Freedom of Information Act request I submitted after the incident, which asks for all documents relating to their illegal detention: incident reports, video, e-mails, etc. After the airport initially lied to me (because they were worried about giving away the “secret” fact that they videotape TSA checkpoints), the airport and TSA have given me most of the documents — with the exception that they took out all the names of all the TSA employees who wrote the documents, and blurred the video so that you can’t see the faces of the screeners. That’s right — the TSA has the right to digitally strip search you, but a video of their faces might violate their privacy.

My brief explains why this is legally wrong, but also why it’s not in the public interest:

The public has an undeniable right to review the actions of its government, and this concept is the very reason for the existence of public records laws like FOIA. As any citizen who has contested a traffic violation has found out, in the context of where a member of the public offers a version of the facts that contradicts a version offered by an employee of the government, all other things equal, courts uniformly adopt the version proffered by the government employee, even in situations where the burden of proof is high. Often times, video evidence is the only means a criminal defendant has in order to dislodge an accusation by a police officer.

But, the public interest of the release of videos of government interaction goes far beyond that of the individual whose liberty or property is on the line. Release of video provides accountability of government officials to the public. When an official knows that his or her actions are being recorded and may be published on the evening news, it is axiomatic that he or she will be more likely to act lawfully and in the public interest.

If there were ever a government agency that could benefit from increased accountability to the public, the Transportation Security Administration is it. In 2012, the TSA has admitted that hundreds of its employees have been caught stealing from members of the public. It admitted to strip-searching grandmothers without lawful authority. It admitted that it hires former clergy accused of sex offenses against children to search children. And, regardless of whether or not such actions are technically legal, it is accused on a daily basis of bullying everyone from grown men to women and children. The TSA is more disdained by Americans than the Internal Revenue Service, a distinction which they have well earned.

Accountability is achieved not by releasing redacted video with blurred faces, but rather by the knowledge that the public – your friends, family, neighbors, letter carrier, Starbucks barista, and anyone else – will judge you if you make a 3-year-old on her way to Disney World cry because you were a power-hungry, arrogant, insensitive, and pathetic individual in the course of your service of the American people. When both the courts and Congress refuse to – or work at a snail’s pace to – leash an out-of-control agency such as the TSA, this is all that we, the people, have left. On the flip side, with the release of video, members of the public who make accusations of mistreatment when they were in fact to blame for an incident will lose their power to malign the agency and its employees.

Defendant TSA is absolutely correct that when the Court releases the full video to Plaintiff, he will publish this video for the world to see. However, if TSA and its employees have done nothing wrong, they should be proud to have that video published, demonstrating their faithful service and that Plaintiff is simply a “troublemaker.” The truth of the matter is that the TSA does not want disclosure of the videos in this case and many others because it knows that while it can argue the legality of its actions in court, it cannot justify its actions to the citizens.

The most awesome part of writing this brief was that the Department of Justice actually did all the research for me. As I was researching case law, I came across the Department of Justice Guide to the Freedom of Information Act, which was written (surprisingly) from an entirely neutral perspective and thoroughly analyzes, with case citations, privacy exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act. Lo and behold, the DoJ opines that “civilian federal employees who are not involved in law enforcement generally have no expectation of privacy regarding their names, titles, grades, salaries, and duty stations as employees…” I couldn’t have said it better myself!

If you want to see what the paperwork looks like when you say “no” to the TSA, check the end of the TSA’s motion (below).

Corbett v. TSA – Motion for Summary Judgment (Broward) (.pdf)
Corbett v. TSA – Motion for Summary Judgment (TSA) (.pdf) (3 MB)
Corbett v. TSA – Motion for Summary Judgment (Corbett) + Opposition to Defendants’ Motions (.pdf)

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