Nov 23 2010

What you need to know about your rights at the airport

  1. TSA “screeners” are not law enforcement officers. Despite wearing police-type uniforms and calling themselves “officers”, they have no police powers and no immunity from any state or local laws.  At some airports, notably San Francisco (SFO) and Kansas City (MCI), they aren’t government employees at all, but rent-a-cops employed by a private contractor. They cannot legally arrest or detain you (except as a citizen’s arrest, the same way you can arrest them if they commit assault or battery). All they can do is call the local police.
  2. You have the right to remain silent, including when questioned by TSA “Behavior Detection Officers.” Anything you say may be used against you.
  3. You have the 1st Amendment right to film, photograph, and record what happens in public areas of airports, including your interactions with TSA and screeners.  Photography and recording in airports and at TSA checkpoints violates no Federal law or TSA regulation. Any state or local laws that purport to prohibit this are likely to be unconstitutional. You have the right, for your own protection, to document what happens to you and what is done to you. In addition, the Federal “Privacy Protection Act of 1980” (42 USC 2000aa) forbids TSA staff or police from searching or seizing photographs, audio or video recordings, documents, or electronic data, if you possess these materials in connection with an intent to distribute them publicly, including online distribution such as posting them on Facebook, Youtube, etc. There are some exceptions to this law, including a limited exception for searches and seizures by customs inspectors (not the TSA) at international ports of entry (not domestic airports). But there is no general airport or TSA exception to this law.
  4. You have the right not to be assaulted or battered (sexually or otherwise), falsely arrested, unlawfully detained, or kidnapped. You may have the right to make a criminal complaint and/or a citizen’s arrest of someone who assaults you, and/or to sue them for damages.  You should consult the applicable laws, including local laws, and/or an attorney, if you plan to do any of these things.
  5. Under most airlines’ conditions of carriage, you have the right to a full and unconditional refund if the airline refuses to transport you because you won’t show ID or won’t “consent” to whatever they want to do to you in the name of “screening”. Read this first: Here’s what to do to protect your right to a refund.  If the airline refuses to give you a full refund, you can sue them for damages and request that the US Department of Transportation investigate and fine them.
  6. If an airline cancels your reservation or refuses to transport you, you may be entitled to collect damages, and you can request that the US Department of Transportation (and, if you were denied passage to the USA from another country, that country’s authorities) investigate and fine or impose other sanctions on the airline.
  7. You have the right to freedom of movement, guaranteed by the First Amendment (“the right of the people… peaceably to assemble”) and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a human rights treaty to which the US is a party: “Everyone lawfully within the territory of a State shall, within that territory, have the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence. Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own…. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.” Federal law (49 USC § 40101, part of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978) requires the TSA to consider “the public right of freedom of transit” by air when it issues regulations.

20 thoughts on “What you need to know about your rights at the airport

  1. Two great articles today.

    How does dealing with the TSA change when one is not an American citizen, but required to be herded through the American airport system?

    My wife and I will go to great lengths to avoid flying through the US, but if we have to how does that change how we might interact with the TSA or its agents?

    Just curious and thought someone here might know.

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  8. Excellent article. Thanks. I haven’t gone near an airport since 1973 because of all of this touchy-feely crap. I’m 61 now and have been to school for 14 years, but never have I seen my rights spelled out so well. I might consider flying now, of course, in the smoking section. Let them call the cops on me. A few years ago a fool (me) called the cops after being assaulted by my late brother (it was always from behind). He got nothing….I spent 6 months in jail because the pigs didn’t like some of my answers while I was in a state of shock, so when I realized I had 4 sets of taser wires–I put 4 of 5 of the cops around me in the hospital.

    As an afterthought, I had just returned from Vietnam I still had some attitude. But when they started to lunge at me in the airport like gangsters–that was enough for me.

  9. PK.

    I would say that the US bill of rights was an acknowledgment of rights given to all men from God, and not just a list of privileges from our government to the people who are citizens under it. Put another way, I believe it is the general consensus that all humans are believed to have those rights, and in areas which the US has control those rights are enforceable. Illegal citizens that are in open violation of our laws are afforded rights according to the bill of rights, you aren’t even a criminal, do not let them treat you like one.

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  11. With respect to lawful entrants to the US (eg transferring passengers) I would argue that you are entitled to the full protection of the Constitution, just as I, a legal resident (resident alien), am. I have exactly the same protections under the Constitution as US citizens do.

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