A panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals decided today, over a dissent, that TSA checkpoint staff at airports (“Transportation Security Officers”) are “officer[s] of the United States … empowered by law to execute searches… for violations of Federal law”, making TSOs liable for damages if they commit assault, battery, or certain other torts against travelers.
With today’s decision in Iverson v. TSA the 8th Circuit joins the 3rd Circuit (en banc) in what is now a 2-1 split with the 11th Circuit, which ruled in 2014 that TSOs, despite their title and the fact that their primary job is to carry out searches, are not “officer[s] of the United States … empowered by law to execute searches… for violations of Federal law” and thus are completely immune from liability for even intentional assaults on travelers.
Most people unfamiliar with the law assume that the government is generally liable for damages if its agents attack innocent citizens. While the law is complex, the general principle is just the reverse: The US government generally enjoys “sovereign immunity” — a despicably undemocratic vestige of the idea that the king is above the law — and private individuals can sue the government only with the government’s permission.
There are exceptions to this principle, in the form of laws that “waive sovereign immunity” for certain offenses, as well as exceptions to the exceptions. The dispute with respect to liability or impunity for violent or negligent TSOs revolves around the interpretation of the language in Federal law defining one of those exceptions to an exception.