Today, we filed a new lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over unlawful TSA search and detention practices. The case was filed on behalf of a traveler who was illegally detained and harassed by TSA Agents at the airport for carrying approximately $4,700 in cash.
On March 29, 2009, the plaintiff in the case, 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. He was carrying the cash in connection to his duties as Treasurer of Ron Paul’s Campaign For Liberty. Steven’s experience is part of a troubling pattern of the TSA transforming its valid but limited search authority into a license to invade people’s constitutional right to privacy.
Steven 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. He 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 him that he was being placed under arrest. Steven recorded audio of the entire incident with his iPhone, which you can listen to here.[audio:http://stream.luxmedia501.com/?file=clients/aclu/bierfeldt.mp3&method=dl|titles=Bierfeldt]
In a press release we issued about the case today, Steven states:
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. 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.
ACLU attorney Ben Wizner who is counsel in the case, explains:
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. 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.
TSA officials have the authority to conduct safety-related searches for weapons and explosives. Since 9/11, TSA agents have been using heightened security measures as an excuse to exceed their search authority and engage in unlawful searches that violate the privacy rights of passengers. Our lawsuit charges that unconstitutional searches and detention by TSA agents have become the norm. For the sake of public safety and constitutional values, these unlawful searches should stop.