Posted by Brad @ 4:29 pm on November 11th 2009

Huge Change in TSA Procedures After Incident with Ron Paul Supporter

The background (summarized in these three posts: 1, 2, and 3):

If you’ll remember, back in April a Campaign For Liberty worker named Steve Bierfeldt was flying through the St. Louis airport with a metal box full of cash proceeds from T-shirt sales. TSA workers wanted to know why he was carrying cash. Bierfeldt, who was otherwise polite and reasonably cooperative, didn’t think it was any of their business. The TSA officials got upset that he wasn’t respecting their authoritah, and so they detained him and continued trying to browbeat him as to why he had $4700 on him, but really, they were just pissed off that he wasn’t being deferential. Bierfeldt recorded the whole exchange on his iPhone. An FBI agent finally showed up and quietly informed the TSA officials to let him go, which they begrudgingly did. Bierfeld, in tandem with the ACLU, filed a great lawsuit against the TSA.

The lawsuit in part alleged that the TSA is not a blanket fishing expedition, and nor are TSA officials somehow uber-cops. They have authority only in the sphere of keeping the plane safe—meaning whether you’re a drug dealer (or whatever) in your non-flying time is irrelevant. The short of it is, the ACLU was telling the TSA to know their place and get back in line.

Today, the ACLU and Bierfeldt has agreed to drop that lawsuit in exchange for a rather major concession. Namely, the TSA has implicitly agreed to everything the ACLU asserted.

An angry aide to Rep. Ron Paul, an iPhone and $4,700 in cash have forced the Transportation Security Administration to quietly issue two new rules telling its airport screeners they can only conduct searches related to airplane safety.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union is dropping its lawsuit on behalf of Steve Bierfeldt, the man who was detained in March and who recorded the confrontation on his iPhone as TSA and local police officers spent half an hour demanding answers as to why he was carrying the money through Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

The new rules, issued in September and October, tell officers “screening may not be conducted to detect evidence of crimes unrelated to transportation security” and that large amounts of cash don’t qualify as suspicious for purposes of safety.

“We had been hearing of so many reports of TSA screeners engaging in wide-ranging fishing expeditions for illegal activities,” said Ben Wizner, a staff lawyer for the ACLU, pointing to reports of officers scanning pill-bottle labels to see whether the passenger was the person who obtained the prescription as one example.

He said screeners get a narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches, strictly to keep weapons and explosives off planes, not to help police enforce other laws.

Now, on some level, the TSA was wise to dodge the lawsuit, which could very well have made it to the Supreme Court and, if they got an unfavorable ruling, could have legally dismantled their authority rather than what is happening now, the TSA choosing to voluntarily draw themselves back. So in some ways, they’re ducking the hammer by taking their nuts off the block.

But in terms of effect, this probably will have more impact, in the day to day lives of citizens, of curtailing encroaching police statism than any court case has had in the last decade at least. Despite a rather major drift in the TSA to the idea that you lose all rights when you walk into an airport, they have finally been forced to begrudgingly acknowledge both their explicit mandate (they are just there to check for guns and bombs), and their limitations.

All of this because of a Ron Paul supporter, who through his integration with and education by the campaign, was organized, well-informed, and confident that he was in the right, put his principles into practice in his daily life. And he, single-handedly, rolled back a major component of the usurption of our liberties in the wake of 911.

One sidenote:

TSA was created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to boost screening at airports, but the young agency has repeatedly bumped heads against civil libertarians, who argue officers overstep their authority.

TSA spokeswoman Lauren Gaches said the new “internal directives” are meant to ensure their screeners are consistent. She acknowledged the policy on large sums of cash had changed, but wouldn’t provide a copy of either document. She said the directives would not be released unless a Freedom Of Information Act request was submitted by The Washington Times. […]

Some civil liberties activists speculate that TSA wants passengers to be uncertain about its procedures because it gives more power to the authorities in an encounter.

The new directives don’t affect a situation where a TSA officer, in the performance of a regular screening, comes across evidence of illegal activity, such as a bag of illicit drugs.

Still much to be done.

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