Aug 31 2020

8th Circuit finds TSA agents can be liable for assault

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.

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Aug 11 2020

TSA considers new system for flyers without ID

According to a solicitation to potential contractors published last week, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) wants to outsource its current questioning of airline passengers without ID, and its decisions about which travelers without ID to allow to travel and which to prevent from flying, to a fee-based system operated through a cellphone app provided by a private contractor and based on (secret) commercial databases.

There’s some good news and some bad news in the TSA’s posting of this Request for Information.

First, the good news:

1. The TSA admits that people can and do fly without ID.

According to the TSA’s Request for Information:

Prior to the COVID-19 National Emergency, TSA encountered over 2.5 million passengers a day and, on average, 600 instances of passengers without acceptable ID. These individuals are able to verify their identity via telephone through our National Transportation Vetting Center (NTVC).

That’s almost three times the average daily number of airline travelers without ID disclosed in the most recent of the TSA’s belated and still-incomplete responses to our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for records of travelers without ID.

2. You will still be able to fly without ID, even after the TSA “implements” and “enforces” the REAL-ID Act.

In their most recent notice of postponement of their REAL-ID threats, the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have said that they plan to fully implement and enforce the REAL-ID Act, with respect to airline travel, beginning October 1, 2021.

The TSA and DHS have repeatedly claimed that after that date, all air travelers will “need” to show ID that the DHS deems compliant with the REAL-ID Act in order to fly. And the TSA has previously indicated — in 2016 and again in May of 2020 —  that it intended to modify its current ID verification procedures to (illegally) deny passage through TSA checkpoints to would-be travelers who don’t present REAL-ID Act compliant ID cards.

But the TSA is now soliciting information preparatory to soliciting bids for a contract to provide outsourced “identity verification” services for air travelers without ID.

The TSA wouldn’t be preparing to solicit bids for a system to deal with air travelers without ID if the TSA planned, in a little more than a year, to stop allowing those people to fly at all.

And the TSA says that the contractor’s ID verification system for flyers without ID must “be able to process thousands of transactions per hour per day [sic] distributed across the TSA enterprise of airports.”  Whether the TSA means “thousands per hour” or “thousands per day”, that’s several times more than the current number of travelers without acceptable ID.

The only plausible explanation for the expected many-fold increase in the number of travelers without acceptable ID is that the TSA’s implementation of the REAL-ACT will result in many more air travelers’ ID’s being deemed unacceptable, and that the outsourced system is the one the TSA plans to use for travelers without REAL-ID compliant ID.

The TSA is looking for a new system for dealing with travelers without ID only because it has been forced to abandon its original plan to prevent all such people from flying.

The most important takeaway from the TSA’s latest notice is that the TSA is (still) lying about what REAL-ID Act enforcement and implementation will mean. You will not need a compliant ID to fly. The procedures may change, but you will still be able to fly without ID.

This is a major victory for our legal objections and for the potential of popular resistance.

The TSA has implicitly acknowledged that — either because it lacks legal authority to prevent everyone without “acceptable” or REAL-ID Act compliant ID from flying, or because doing so would cause riots at airports or other forms of popular resistance, or both — it  won’t be able to stop travelers without ID or without compliant ID from flying.

The bad news is the nature of the TSA’s contemplated new procedures for flyers without ID (or without “acceptable” ID).

Currently, the TSA leaves the final decision on whether or not to allow airline passengers without ID to pass through TSA or contractor-operated checkpoints to the discretion of the Federal Security Director (FSD) or their designee on duty at the individual airport.

That decision can be based on what the FSD thinks of the traveler’s looks, the nature of any “unacceptable” ID they present, whether they are willing to complete and sign the illegal TSA Form 415, and their responses to questions relayed via the TSA’s Identity Verification Call Center (IVCC) from the TSA National Transportation Vetting Center (NTVC) based on information in records about the traveler held by the commercial data broker Accurint.

The new process apparently being considered by the TSA would outsource the questioning of travelers without ID or with unacceptable ID to a private for-profit contractor, with that questioning to be administered through a smartphone app. The questions would be based on some aggregation of government and commercial data, and the answers would be assessed according to some secret algorithm to generate a binary pass or fail result.

An identity thief (or ‘bot) with access to the commercial database used as the basis for “pass/fail” determinations would be better able to answer questions about the information in that database than would a real person who is unprepared for this questioning and who has no way to know (or to correct) what misinformation is contained in the database.

A traveler who shows up at a TSA checkpoint would, it appears, be told they have to install the mobile app, pay a fee through the app (which presumably would require a credit or debit card or bank account),  complete the in-app questioning, and show a “pass” result from the app to the TSA staff or contractors in order to “complete screening” and proceed through the checkpoint.

  • No cellphone? No fly. (We’ve seen this already in Hawaii.)
  • Your cellphone isn’t a smartphone? No fly.
  • Your smartphone has a different OS that can’t run the contractor’s app? No fly.
  • No charge in your cellphone battery? No fly.
  • No signal in the airport? No fly.
  • No credit or debit card? No fly.
  • Don’t know what misinformation is in data brokers’ records about you? No fly.
  • Your record fits a “fail” profile in the contractor’s secret algorithms? No fly.

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Jul 03 2020

Two courts deny injunctions against state restrictions on interstate travel

Following separate hearings yesterday, two Federal District Court judges in New York and Hawaii denied applications for temporary restraining orders against state health orders mandating quarantine of some or all people arriving from out of state.

A ruling in Corbett v. Cuomo was issued orally, immediately following argument by phone, by Judge Lorna Schofield in New York.  A written ruling in Carmichael v. Ige was issued late last night by Judge Jill Otake in Hawaii, following an afternoon hearing by videoconferencing.

Neither of yesterday’s rulings is a final decision in either of these cases, even at the District Court level. Both cases are continuing, and motions for temporary restraining orders can be renewed if conditions change and/or new evidence becomes available. The standard that must be met to persuade a court to issue a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction, especially against government action, is always high, and is generally higher than what must be shown to support a favorable decision on the merits.

The judges issuing yesterday’s rulings indicated a disturbing willingness to accept conclusionary hand-waving, by anyone designated by the state as an expert, as sufficient to justify restrictions on the right to travel. During the oral arguments, both judges paid lip service to the idea that there might be some limits on what state authorities could do once they invoked the magic words, “because pandemic“.  But neither Assistant New York Attorney General Matthew Lawson nor Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors was prepared to say where those limits might be, and neither of the judges’ rulings spelled out meaningful criteria or limits to state officials’ discretion.

We are concerned, and the public should be concerned, if Federal courts wash their hands of oversight over state officials, and leave it to “discretion” of those state officials to decide for themselves to what extent they can infringe on people’s fundamental right in the name of whatever they consider to be the exigency of the moment, whether that be defense against Communism, anarchism, terrorism, pandemic, or tomorrow’s demon of the day.

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Jun 30 2020

Freedom to travel across state lines

Oral arguments have been scheduled by two different Federal District Court judges for this Thursday, July 2, 2020, on motions for temporary restraining orders against enforcement of separate state health orders mandating 14-day quarantine of all people arriving in New York or Hawaii from out of state.

Corbett v. Cuomo will be argued at 2 p.m. EDT by telephone in New York; Carmichael v. Ige will be argued in person (and not available for remote auditing) at 11 a.m. HST in Hawaii.

The Hawaii quarantine order, as we’ve discussed previously, applies to anyone arriving from out of state. The New York order only applies to people who have visited certain states designated by New York authorities, but those states include almost half the US population. The blacklisted states include Georgia and Texas, so anyone who changes planes in Atlanta, Houston, or Dallas-Ft. Worth — all major airline hubs — en route to New York is affected, even if they are coming from some other, less-infected state.

As the complaint in the New York case notes, it’s unclear whether those involuntarily quarantined in New York will be held in jails, hospitals, or some other locations, but according to a public statements by New York Governor Cuomo cited in the complaint, they are to be detained at their own expense.

On its face, the New York order applies to anyone arriving in New York who has recently been in any of the blacklisted states, even if they don’t intend to stay in New York. This would include people changing planes in New York, or passing through on the short New York section of Interstate 95 or on the Northeast Corridor between New England and New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and points south and west. All routes between New England and the rest of the US pass through either New York or Canada. With the US-Canada border mostly closed, enforcement of the New York travel restrictions would render New England an isolted island accessible only by air.

In addition to the 14-day quarantine, New York state has also begun demanding that each interstate traveler arriving by air (regardless of their state of residence or whether they have visited any of the blacklisted states) complete and sign a written declaration (Exhibit B to the complaint) about themselves, their business affairs, and their travels.

The Hawaii and New York quarantines and the New York questionnaire for interstate air travelers are all backed with threats of arrest and fines for noncompliance.

The New York quarantine order and travel declaration are being challenged by Jonathan Corbett, who has his primary residence and business interests in Brooklyn, New York, but is also a member of the California bar who practices law in California. Before his admission to the bar, Mr. Corbett had brought multiple pro se lawsuits challenging restrictions on air travel and searches of travelers, including the TSA’s use of “virtual strip-search” imaging machines.

Significantly, in light of the written declaration that the state of New York is now ordering arriving air travelers to fill out and sign, Mr. Corbett has also previously challenged administrative interrogations of air travelers (who aren’t suspected of any crime) by, or at the behest of, the TSA. That case was dismissed without the court reaching the Constitutionality of administrative interrogation of travelers. So far as we know, Corbett v. Cuomo is the first time this issue has arisen in a COVID-19 quarantine case.

There’s extensive case law on administrative searches, but very little on administrative interrogations. Mr. Corbett argues, and we concur, that he has an absolute right to stand mute in response to interrogatories by state authorities at state borders or airports.

In the current circumstances, it’s tempting to give health authorities a free pass for whatever they do, “because pandemic”. But that would be a mistake. We’ve already seen what happened when authorities were given free rein to impose new restrictions on travelers after September 11, 2001, “because terrorism”. Many of those measures had no rational relationship to the prevention of terrorism, were implemented without regard for Constitutional rights, and have become permanent, or effectively so.

How long will the current health emergency last? And will Federal, state, and local government agencies return to their prior practices at airports and borders if and when the emergency is declared to have ended, or will restrictions imposed during the pandemic become the permanent “new normal”?

If our Constitution is to have meaning, and if there is a sufficient justification for restrictions on travel, it should be possible to defend those restrictions on the basis of the Constitution. It should not be necessary to argue for suspending the Constitution.

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Jun 23 2020

TSA wants more authority for ID demands, “vetting”, and data use

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) wants more power to require ID from travelers (“credentialing”), control who is and who is not allowed to exercise their right to travel (“vetting”), and use and share information about travelers with more third parties and for more purposes (“expanded data use”).

These TSA priorities for the next two years are included in a 2020 update released today to the 2018 implementation road map for the TSA and White House long-term strategic plans for travel surveillance and control.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske’s oddly-named “Intent 2.0” strategy update also prioritizes “biometric vetting and [identity] verification”, a “near-contactless experience” at TSA checkpoints, and “vetting as a service”.

The “near-contactless experience” would be achieved, it appears, not through reduced hands-on groping or fewer demands for ID, but through increased use of remote sensing such as facial recognition.

“Vetting as a service” refers to allowing airlines, airport operators, and perhaps other government agencies and/or commercial third parties to use the TSA’s databases of profiles, risk scores, travel histories, free-text comments in reservations by travel industry workers, unverified aggregated derogatory data form other sources, and biometric and other identifiers for their own purposes. This not only expands the potential adverse impact of arbitrary secret algorithmic profiling based on secret databases, but gives airlines a financial incentive to carry out facial-recognition surveillance on the TSA’s behalf in order to get a free ride to use the TSA’s identification/vetting service for business process automation, personalization (including personalized pricing), or other purposes.

None of the TSA’s strategy documents say how the TSA hopes to acquire “expanded vetting and credentialing authorities” or “expanded approvals for data use”. Will the TSA seek to have these included in new laws? Or will to try to grant itself wider authority through  rulemaking or press releases, as it has often done in the past?

At least now we know, if we didn’t already, what to watch out for from the TSA in the months and years ahead.

Jun 08 2020

TSA to take mug shots of domestic air travelers

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has officially although quietly announced that, as it has planned for years, its deployment of mug-shot machines at airport checkpoints will move from pilot projects to the new normal for domestic air travelers.

According to a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) released last week, the TSA plans to integrate facial recognition into the Secure Flight profiling, scoring, and control system used by the TSA and other linked agencies to decide who is, and who is not, “allowed” to pass through TSA checkpoints to exercise their right to travel by airline common carrier.

Cameras to photograph would-be travelers’ faces will be added to each of the stations at airport checkpoints where TSA employees and contractors currently scan would-be passengers’ travel documents (boarding passes and, if they present ID, ID documents).

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Jun 05 2020

“Qualified immunity” and TSA impunity

We are pleased that legislation has been introduced in Congress to end “qualified immunity“, one of the main judicial theories that has enabled Transportation Security Administration checkpoint staff to violate travelers’ rights with de facto impunity.

H.R. 7085, introduced yesterday in the House of Representatives, is a simple and straightforward bill to end qualified immunity:

The lead sponsor of H.R. 7085, Rep. Justin Amash (Libertarian of Michigan) is also the sponsor of a pending bill, H.R. 4431, to prohibit the TSA or any other DHS component from preventing  a US citizen or permanent resident from boarding a commercial airline flight on the basis of a “no-fly list” or “watchlist” unless that individual has been convicted of a Fderal crime of terrorism. H.R. 7085 has 17 other initial co-sponors.

S. Res. 602, introduced earlier this week in the Senate, is a resolution expressing the “sense of the Senate” that:

Congress should amend section 1979 of the Revised Statutes (42 U.S.C. 1983) to eliminate the qualified immunity defense for law enforcement officers.

A resolution adopted by Congress calling on Congress to take a certain action is, of course, inherently half-hearted.If Congress believes that Congress should amend a law, Congress can and should amend that law, not merely pass a resolution telling itself what it ought to do. Nevertheless, S. Res. 602 is a step toward Senate acknowledgment of the need for action on this issue. Perhaps the introduction of H.R. 7085 in the House will prompt Senators to introduce a similar bill to give meaning to the sentiments expressed in S. Res. 602.

As the preamble to H.R. 7085 explains, “qualified immunity” is a rationale invented by Federal judges as their excuse for absolving law enforcement officers of liability when they have  violated individuals’ rights. Qualified immunity is a judicially created doctrine that does not purport to be derived from anything in the text of the law.

“Qualified immunity” gives police and other government agents “immunity” (i.e. impunity) when they violate individuals’ rights, if they believed in “good faith” that their actions were legal, unless the fact that their actions were illegal was “clearly established”. Judges typically presume good faith on the part of police, and it’s much harder to show evidence of bad faith or malign intent, as a state of mind, than to show evidence of illegal actions.

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Jun 02 2020

“Immunity passports”, opportunism, and COVID-19

Today the Appropriations Committee of the California Assembly held another hearing on A.B. 2004, a bill that would add to state law a provision that:

An issuer, including an issuer that is a public entity, of COVID-19 test results or other medical test results may use verifiable credentials, as defined by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for the purpose of providing test results to individuals.

What does this mean? Why does it matter? Is it part of a larger pattern?

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May 19 2020

TSA tries again to impose an ID requirement to fly

Air travel in the US has been reduced by more than 90%, measured by the numbers of people passing through checkpoints at airports operated by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and its contractors.

And the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has postponed its threat to start unlawfully refusing passage to travelers without ID credentials compliant with the REAL-ID Act of 2005 for another year, from October 1, 2020, to October 1, 2021.

So relatively little attention is being paid right now to air travel or TSA requirements — making it the ideal time for the TSA to try to sneak a new ID requirement for air travel (to take effect in 2021) into place without arousing public protest.

Today, in collaboration with nine other organizations concerned with freedom of travel, identification, privacy, human rights, and civil liberties, we filed comments with the TSA in opposition to what is ostensibly a “Notice of intent to request approval from the Office of Mangement and Budget” for a new form, TSA Form 415.

Our comments were joined by the Identity Project, Freedom To Travel USA, Fiat Fiendum, Inc., National Center For Transgender Equality (NCTE), Restore The Fourth, Inc., Patient Privacy Rights, Defending Rights And Dissent, The Constitutional Alliance, Privacy Times, and Just Futures Law.

According to our comments, the TSA is attempting to “use the innocuous-seeming device of a request for approval of an information collection to introduce a fundamental and profoundly controversial change in substantive TSA requirements and the rights of travelers”: Read More

May 06 2020

First court ruling on a COVID-19 travel ban

Judge William Bertelsman of the U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky at Covington has issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting Kentucky state authorities from enforcing a “Travel Ban” order issued by Gov. Andy Beshear that prohibited most travel  into or out of Kentucky, and required anyone crossing the state line to self-quarantine for fourteen days thereafter.

In so doing, and in concluding that “the Travel Ban does not pass constitutional muster,” Judge Bertelsman has become, so far as we know, the first Federal judge to opine on the Constitutionality of any of the hodgepodge of restrictions on interstate travel that have been imposed across the country in the name of control of the spread of COVID-19.

We are pleased that Judge Bertelsman correctly recognized that the Kentucky travel ban based its restriction on criteria (state lines and residency status that are meaningless to the novel coronavirus) that are unrelated to the protection of public health.

Covington, KY, is located directly across the Ohio River river from the larger city of Cincinnati, OH, with which it forms a single cross-border interstate metropolis. Judge Bertelsman sits in Covington, KY, but was born in Cincinnati, OH. The main airport for Cincinnati is located in Kentucky, not in Ohio, and uses the airport code “CVG” for Covington. In normal, non-pandemic times, more than 200,000 vehicles cross the bridges between Covington and Cincinnati every day, with no more thought than they would give to crossing a bridge within either state.

The ruling this week on the Kentucky ban on interstate travel came in a lawsuit, Roberts v. Neace, filed as a class action on April 14, 2020. The complaint raised objections both to the ban on interstate travel and to other provisions of Gov. Beshear’s executive orders restricting mass gatherings  — including, but not limited to, gatherings for religious purposes — within the state of Kentucky.

Most of the argument on both sides, intervention by friends of the court, and news reporting about the case focused on the dispute over intrastate religion gatherings. Judge Bertelsman denied the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction on that claim, however, on the basis that it treated religious gatherings the same as all others, and was not specifically religious (or anti-religious) in intention or effect.

The claim that was upheld was against the interstate travel ban, on the following grounds which we hope that other courts considering similar cases will find persuasive:

The “‘constitutional right to travel from one State to another’ is firmly embedded in our jurisprudence.” Saenz v. Rose, 526 U.S. 489, 498 (1999) (quoting United States v. Guest, 383 U.S. 745, 757 (1966)). Indeed, the right is “virtually unconditional.” Id. (quoting Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618, 643 (1969)). See also United States v. Guest, 383 U.S. 745, 757 (1966) (“The constitutional right to travel from one State to another … occupies a position fundamental to the concept of our Federal Union. It is a right that has been firmly established and repeatedly recognized.”).

To be valid, such orders must meet basic Constitutional requirements. As the Supreme Court has stated: “(E)ven though the governmental purpose be legitimate and substantial, that purpose cannot be pursued by means that broadly stifle fundamental personal liberties when the end can be more narrowly achieved. The breadth of legislative abridgment must be viewed in the light of less drastic means for achieving the same basic purpose.” Aptheker v. Sec. of State, 378 U.S. 500, 508 (1964) (quoting NAACP v. Alabama, 377 U.S. 288, 307-08 (1964)).

The travel restrictions now before the Court violate these principles.

They have the following effects, among others:

  1. A person who lives or works in Covington would violate the order by taking a walk on the Suspension Bridge to the Ohio side and turning around and walking back, since the state border is several yards from the Ohio riverbank.
  2. A person who lives in Covington could visit a friend in Florence, Kentucky (roughly eight miles away) without violating the executive orders. But if she visited another friend in Milford, Ohio, about the same distance from Covington, she would violate the Executive Orders and have to be quarantined on return to Kentucky. Both these trips could be on an expressway and would involve the same negligible risk of contracting the virus.
  3. Family members, some of whom live in Northern Kentucky and some in Cincinnati less than a mile away, would be prohibited from visiting each other, even if social distancing and other regulations were observed.
  4. Check points would have to be set up at the entrances to the many bridges connecting Kentucky to other states. The I-75 bridge connecting Kentucky to Ohio is one of the busiest bridges in the nation. Massive traffic jams would result. Quarantine facilities would have to be set up by the State to accommodate the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who would have to be quarantined.
  5. People from states north of Kentucky would have to be quarantined if they stopped when passing through Kentucky on the way to Florida or other southern destinations.
  6. Who is going to provide the facilities to do all the quarantining?

The Court questioned counsel for defendants Beshear and Friedlander during oral argument about some of these potential applications of the Travel Ban, and counsel indeed confirmed that the Court’s interpretations were correct. (Doc. 38 at 9-13).

The Court is aware that the pandemic now pervading the nation must be dealt with, but without violating the public’s constitutional rights. Not only is there a lack of procedural due process with respect to the Travel Ban, but the above examples show that these travel regulations are not narrowly tailored to achieve the government’s purpose.

The trauma of 9/11 led to a tendency, all too pervasive even today, to treat air travel as per se more dangerous than other modes of travel and thus as warranting restrictions in the name of “security”, even though it was and remained the safest mode of travel.

We fear that the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to a similar impulse to equate the risk of infection with the risk of disease, and to impose restrictions on travel on this basis. We are especially pleased, therefore, that Judge Bertelsman recognized that travel — in a closed private vehicle, for example — carries in itself little risk of disease transmission, and that restrictions on travel do not necessarily serve to restrict the spread of disease.

We hope that this common-sense analysis, based on recognition of the right to travel and strict fact-based scrutiny of proposed travel restrictions and the justifications for them offered by government authorities, is followed by other judges.