What to Expect When Getting a New TSA Pat-Down

Document Date: November 21, 2010

Thanks to a new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) policy, many passengers are being forced to undergo an extremely intrusive and humiliating “pat down” search that is unlike anything most Americans have experienced before.

In the few weeks since the policy came into effect, the ACLU has received hundreds of complaints from travelers who have been subject to these invasive and suspicionless searches. These complaints came from men, women and children who reported feeling humiliated and traumatized by these searches, and, in some cases, comparing their psychological impact to sexual assaults.

Based on the reports we have received, those who are subjected to the searches will very likely experience the following which appear to be “standard practice”:

  • Agents fingering your ankles and running their hands all the way up your legs, including the area between your inner thighs and crotch;
  • Agents patting your genital area through your clothing;
  • Agents rubbing and squeezing your arms, back, stomach, buttocks, and breasts with open hands through your clothing. Screeners often run their fingers along the underwire of women’s bras;
  • Agents running their fingers through your hair and the area around your neck and the collar of your shirt;
  • Agents running their fingers several inches down the waistband of your pants or skirt, often involving touching and/or exposing your bare stomach.

You may also experience what some have reported:

  • Agents performing these searches in full view of other, gawking passengers, without informing travelers of their right to be screened in private;
  • Agents touching your genitals through your clothing with shocking and even painful force;
  • Agents pressing between the cheeks of your buttocks through your clothing;
  • Agents repeatedly touching the same parts of your body, for no apparent reason;
  • Agents with demeanors that range from embarrassed or apologetic, to coldly professional, to aggressive and hostile, to creepy;
  • Being delayed and forced to wait for extended periods of time;
  • You may be separated from your carry-on belongings, which are often left unguarded while the pat-down takes place. One woman reported being separated from her infant during the pat-down

Who can be subjected to one of these searches? Anyone. Based on the reports we’ve received, you may be forced to undergo one of these rub-downs if:

  • You are selected randomly for one;
  • You set off a magnetic scanner (individuals with artificial joints or other metal in their bodies may undergo these pat-downs each time they fly);
  • You undergo a full-body x-ray scan, but are told the image indicated something unclear or possibly suspicious;
  • You are told that your clothing requires a pat-down (reports vary widely as to the clothing at issue);
  • You exercise your right to opt-out of the full-body x-ray scan, which permits a TSA agent to see through your clothes and view your naked figure;
  • A TSA agent decides to punish you because you misunderstand them or exercise your right as an American to express an opinion to them.

In fact, in some cases, individuals have reported being subjected to this touching for no reason that anyone explained to them. According to our reports, Children, adolescents, the elderly, and the disabled are not exempt from these invasive searches.

The government should enact procedures that pose the least threat to our civil liberties and are also proven to be effective; embarrassingly intimate pat-downs does not fit that criteria. The ACLU is doing everything it can to end these unacceptable physical searches.

If you have experienced a problem with the full body scanners or pat-down searches at airport security, you can help us end these problems.

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