NPR logo ACLU Sues TSA For Airport Search Of Man Flying With $4,700


ACLU Sues TSA For Airport Search Of Man Flying With $4,700

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the Transportation Security Administration on behalf of a traveler who was hassled by security agents at Lambert-St. Louis's International Airport after he repeatedly asked if the law required him to answer their questions about $4,700 in cash he was transporting

The traveler, Steven Bierfeldt, was associated with the Ron Paul-inspired Campaign for Liberty and the money, which he was transporting in a metal cash box, represented the proceeds from the sales of t-shirts and other items.

Bierfeldt has become something of a cause célèbre for many who see his case as just another example of big government unconstitutionally intruding in the lives of citizens.

An ACLU press release provides a statement and many of the case's relevant details:

"Airport searches are the most common encounters between Americans and law enforcement agents. That's why it is so important for TSA agents to do the job they were trained to do and not engage in fishing expeditions that do nothing to promote flight safety," said Ben Wizner, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. "It is, of course, very important to ensure the safety of flights and keep illegal weapons and explosives off planes. But allowing TSA screeners to conduct general purpose law enforcement searches violates the Constitution while diverting limited resources from TSA's core mission of protecting safety. For the sake of public safety and constitutional values, these unlawful searches should stop."

On March 29, 2009, Steven Bierfeldt was detained in a small room at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and interrogated by TSA officials for nearly half an hour after he passed a metal box containing cash through a security checkpoint X-ray machine. Bierfeldt was carrying the cash in connection with his duties as the Director of Development for the Campaign for Liberty, a political organization that grew out of Congressman Ron Paul's presidential campaign.

Bierfeldt was detained and questioned as he returned home from a Campaign for Liberty event transporting proceeds from the sale of tickets, t-shirts, stickers and campaign material. Bierfeldt repeatedly asked the agents to explain the scope of their authority to detain and interrogate him and received no explanation. Instead, the agents escalated the threatening tone of their questions and ultimately told Bierfeldt that he was being placed under arrest. Bierfeldt recorded the audio of the entire incident with his iPhone.

"I do not believe I should give up my constitutional rights each time I choose to travel by plane. I was doing nothing illegal or suspicious, yet I was treated like a potential criminal and harassed for no reason," said Bierfeldt. "Most Americans would be surprised to learn that TSA considers simply carrying cash to be a basis for detention and questioning. I hope the court makes clear that my detention by TSA agents was unconstitutional and stops TSA from engaging in these unlawful searches and arrests. I do not want another innocent American to have to endure what I went through."

I'm awaiting a response from TSA and will post it as soon as I get it.

Update 4:35 pm:

TSA has issued a statement:

We cannot comment on pending litigation.

At approximately 6:50 p.m. on March 29, 2009, a metal box alarmed the X-ray machine at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, triggering the need for additional screening. Because the box contained a number of items including a large amount of cash, all of which needed to be removed to be properly screened, it was deemed more appropriate to continue the screening process in a private area.

It is legal to transport any amount of money when flying domestically, however movements of large amounts of cash through the checkpoint may be investigated by law enforcement authorities if suspicious activity is suspected. As a general rule, passengers are required to cooperate with the screening process. Cooperation may involve answering questions about their property. A passenger who refuses to answer questions may be referred to appropriate authorities for further inquiry.

A passenger must file a report with U.S. Customs when flying with amounts exceeding $10,000 (or its foreign equivalent) from the United States to any foreign place, or into the United States from any foreign place.

After listening to the audio of the incident, it seems fairly clear that the TSA agents and the police officer they called for assistance were very annoyed by Bierfeldt's decision to not answer their questions unless they would answer his: was he legally required to answer them.

It also seems remarkable that the simple act of a traveler carrying a large amount of cash could trigger such a search and interrogation.

Worth noting is that the TSA agents and police officer at several occasions meet Bierfeldt's stance with the threat that they'll take him down to the "station" where there's a representative of the Drug Enforcement Agency.

But isn't the TSA's job to prevent dangers to commercial aviation such as terrorists from getting aboard airplanes? How does threatening to take an air traveler to the station to be interrogated by DEA agents fit into that mission?

The ACLU makes this point in its complaint, arguing that the TSA is expanding its scope beyond the authorities beyond what Congress intended.

An excerpt from the lawsuit:

It is well established that subjecting airline passengers to limited searches designed to detect weapons and explosives is consistent with the Fourth Amendment. But it is equally clear that such search authority constitutes a narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment's basic prohibition of suspicionless searches, and that authority is carefully circumscribed to serve its limited purpose. As a matter of policy or practice, however, TSA has attempted to enlarge its authority, untethering it from the pressing but limited purpose of protecting civilian aviation.