In 2012, a TSA screener refused to allow me to leave a checkpoint after I told him I wouldn’t consent to having him touch my genitals. He told me I would be forcibly searched, called the police, and spent 45 minutes tearing apart my baggage looking for drugs. TSA screeners, of course, have no authority to conduct a detention, a forcible search, or a search for drugs.
I sued TSA that year — long before I had even started law school — and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held against me, without allowing oral arguments as is traditional, because, they said, the law under which I sued only applied to “investigative or law enforcement officers” and TSA screeners are not “officers.” This despite their badge reading “U.S. Officer,” their job title being “Transportation Security Officer,” and obviously meeting the statutory definition, which was one “empowered by law to execute searches, to seize evidence, or to make arrests.”
Fast forward a decade, a law degree, and a law license later, and two U.S. Courts of Appeals have held the opposite — and today I’m proud to announce that the Fourth Circuit joins them in a unanimous opinion in Osmon v. United States, 22-2045, a case I argued on behalf of a woman who was sexually assaulted on video, right at a checkpoint, while the TSA screener commented on how short her shorts were:
The government disagrees, insisting the relevant language covers only searches that are part of “criminal law enforcement.” U.S. Br. 21 (quotation marks omitted). Per the government, the law enforcement proviso permits suits for battery only when the officer could perform “a criminal, investigatory search” rather than “an administrative search,” which takes the form of an “inspection” or “screening.” U.S. Br. 26.
The problem with the government’s argument is that it reprises a tactic the Supreme Court has already rejected: “read[ing] into the text additional limitations designed to narrow the scope of the law enforcement proviso.” Millbrook, 569 U.S. at 55. The word “criminal” appears nowhere in the law enforcement proviso—let alone as a modifier of “searches.” See 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h). Here, as elsewhere, we “may not narrow a provision’s reach by inserting words Congress chose to omit.” Lomax v. Ortiz-Marquez, 140 S. Ct. 1721, 1725 (2020).
Having joined the Third Circuit in Pellegrino v. United States, 15-3047 (3rd Cir. 2019, en banc) and Iverson v. United States, (8th Cir. 2020), there are now 15 states where TSA may no longer use the “we’re not officers” defense. Because the Eleventh Circuit did not publish their opinion in my 2012 case, it is non-precedential and lawsuits may proceed in all 35 other states, where TSA will have an uphill battle convincing courts to apply different logic.
Suffice to say, I am ecstatic to open the courthouse doors for all injured by abusive feds, I am thrilled to bring my client closer to getting some justice for this brazen misconduct, and I feel personally vindicated after having been swept out the courthouse door a decade ago by judges who, frankly, did not want to deal with a pro se litigant challenging the government’s status quo. My firm continues to handle cases of checkpoint abuse, and I encourage anyone violated by TSA at the checkpoint to get in touch.