It’s been a while since I’ve dug into reader mail … but an email yesterday caught my eye. Michael Rogers, from New York, asks, “Is there a legal case for the TSA to go through every item in my bag? Last week in Detroit I had every item in my bag inspected, why are TSA searches legal without a warrant and without screeners being law enforcement?”
Michael, there are a number of reasons why airport security screeners around the world have the power to inspect every item in a travelers bag. To go into the intricate details of each search type, their legal arguments and the legal debate that is ensuing at this time would require a number of legal minds to write their opinions, many of which conflict …
… however the simple answer is this … In the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Transportation Security Officers (TSO), and private firms that handle airport security under the authority of the TSA, have the ability to search travelers as “Administrative Searches.”
By definition an Administrative Search is a search carried out under a regulatory or statutory scheme. Administrative searches are carried out to enforce compliance with regulations or laws pertaining to health, safety, or security.
In 1967 the United State Supreme Court heard Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523 and made the following ruling: A reasonable administrative search may be conducted upon a showing of probable cause which is less stringent than that required for a search incident to a criminal investigation.
The TSA’s basis is that the need to inspect all passengers and their belonging is that ‘probable cause’ and the U.S. Government has upheld that the TSA is within the spirit of the law when it comes to conducting Administrative Searches.
The real challenge for the TSA and Administrative Searches comes when screeners find criminal items, such as narcotics, given the 1988 case People vs Madison, 520 N.E.2d 374, which ruled: The government may not use an administrative inspection scheme as a pretext to search for evidence of criminal violations.
The TSA has stepped outside its legal authority a number of times while both detecting items that are illegal, but not a threat to aviation security and that required extraordinary measures to reveal, and in other cases … such as questioning a woman traveling with sequential checks worth thousands of dollars, while traveling on business.
But as for you having the contents of your bag unloaded and individually inspected … as irritating as that can be, and I’ve had it happen to me a few times … the TSA has the legal authority as they are carrying out Administrative Searches for the purposes of safety and no security.
Hope that answered your question.