Once again as before trying to legislate by press release and blog posting, the TSA has asserted that it has the general law-enforcement authority to detain would-be airline passengers, seize their possessions, and compel them to answer questions — for reasons entirely unrelated to aviation or security, and even when it cannot articulate any probable cause for a belief that any law has been violated.
These new assertions come in response to an incident in which a passenger attempted to bring a locked metal cash box as part of their carry-on baggage on a domestic flight. Since the box was opaque to x-rays, the TSA staff at the checkpoint at Lambert Airport in St. Louis asked the traveler to open the box so that they could check whether it contained any prohibited or dangerous items, and took him into a private room to do so.
So far, OK. Commenters in the TSA blog, including jewel dealers, point out that many types of valuables must be carried on (because they are exempt from airline liability if placed in checked baggage) and that they don’t want them inspected in public, where other people might learn what they are carrying.
In the back room, the traveler unlocked the box, and the TSA agents verified that it contained only cash (approximately $4,700), checks, and other documents. No weapons or explosives, and nothing even arguably prohibited, dangerous, contraband, or illegal. That should have been the end of the screening. Instead of letting the traveler go on through the checkpoint, however, the TSA then called the local police. It’s unclear if the TSA actually detained the traveler or kept custody of his cash box and its contents while waiting for the police, or if he could have left the airport (with or without his money and checks) before the police arrived, but it’s clear that they wouldn’t have allowed him to continue past the checkpoint to his flight.
Once the police arrived, the police and the TSA together informed the traveler that he was under detention and not free to leave, and interrogated the traveler about his employment, the reasons for his trip to St. Louis, the ownership and source of the money and checks (which in fact were the proceeds from a political event, which thus contained information protected by the First Amendment about acts of assembly and association by the writers of the checks), and other issues unquestionably unrelated to weapons, explosives, or aviation security.
The traveler responded to each of these questions, calmly and politely, by asking, “Am I required by law to answer that question?” None of the TSA staff or police would answer this question, nor have they subsequently done so. Instead, they told him that possession of cash and failing to answer their questions was “suspicious”, and threatened to keep him under detention and “take him downtown” to be questioned further by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
After about 25 minutes, and after some conversation out of his hearing between the agents and an unidentified person in plain clothes, the traveler was told he was free to go. He made his plane, with his cash box and its contents.
We know all this because the traveler, Steve Bierfeldt, covertly recorded all but the start of the incident on his iPhone. There’s more about the incident, including interviews with Mr. Bierfeldt, in these reports from Fox News and the Washington Times. And in case you are wondering, the incident occurred in Missouri, where the law permits any party to a converstion to record it, even without the knowledge or consent of the other party or parties.