Over the past few months, interviews at airports across the U.S. by Homeland Security have gone a little nutty. Well maybe they always were post 9/11. War reporter Michael Yon was recently detained in the Seattle airport, practically arrested by the TSA when he refused to answer personal questions about his income that bore no relation to national security. Then we have Steve Bierfeldt, a Ron Paul Campaign for Liberty treasurer detained and hounded by TSA back in March of 2009. Bierfeldt was stopped for carrying cash and Ron Paul campaign material, despite the fact that there is no limit to the amount of cash you can carry within the United States. He was integrated about his personal life and political beliefs, at the airport of all places.
Bierfeldt and Yon refused to answer questions because they wanted to know their rights first. Many travelers do not know their rights when TSA shuttles them off to that little room with no windows. Yon said of the incident, “No country has ever treated me so badly. Not China. Not Vietnam. Not Afghanistan.”
Over lunch last week, my mom and I discussed the on-going TSA issue. She curiously asked me, “Well what are you rights when TSA questions you?” This sparked some research in me. I began searching the TSA website for a traveler’s rights section. No such category exists. No wonder no one knows what they should and should not answer when it comes to TSA. There is a section titled “The Screening Experience”, but nothing on the site tells you specifically, flat out, when TSA starts asking what you do for a living and what car you drive, how you should respond.
I looked for other outlets to find the answers. Very few sites know a traveler’s rights at the airport. The ACLU does have a document called “Know Your Rights When Encountering Law Enforcement.” The file contains an entire section on your rights at airports. I have condensed it below for travelers looking to know how to handle TSA questioning.
When can officers stop me at the airport?
Customs agents, immigration officers and TSA officers can search you at anytime. They can stop you based on your citizenship and travel itinerary. They have the right to search all your bags, even if you passed through security without a beep.
When can TSA NOT stop me at the airport?
It is illegal for law enforcement officers to perform any stops, searches, detentions or removals based solely on race, national origin, religion, sex, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation.
What are my rights when questioned by TSA?
Officers do have the right to question you about the property you are carrying with you, such as asking if you have weapons, drugs, etc. They can ask you about the purpose of your visit, your travel itinerary or your citizenship.
It seems most travelers at one point or another have been extensively detained by TSA. I searched “detained by TSA”. Pages and pages of stories pulled up of personal accounts of ridiculous questioning. U.S. citizens selected for additional questioning by airport officers have the right to an attorney present for any questioning. If you feel the questions you are being asked have no pertinence to national security or you are being detained for doing something legal, you may say you would like a lawyer present before answering unnecessary questions. This can help the situation. In Steve Bierfeldt’s case, he merely asked the TSA officer what his rights were before answering their questions. They would not tell him. If they won’t tell you your rights, tell them you want them to call your lawyer or you would like to have a lawyer present. Non U.S. citizens selected for a longer interview generally do not have the right to an attorney. They DO have the right however if any of the questions relate to anything other than immigration status.
What are the TSA rights?
It is amazing what the TSA can have access to without probable cause. Officers can generally have access to your laptop files and make copies if they want. If this occurs and you feel it did so unjustly, write down the name, badge number and agency of the person who conducted the search so you can file a complaint. If TSA wants to remove a religious headpiece because an alarm is coming from it, you have the right to remove it in private. Surprisingly strip searches are still technically allowed. While this is not a routine procedure, strip searches can technically be conducted by reasonable suspicion in a private area.