Court rules TSA screeners are immune from assault, other charges

Apparently, it's not assault when the government does it.

An appeals court in Philadelphia has ruled that TSA screeners are immune from prosecution for assault, false imprisonment, and other charges made by irate passengers.


In a 2-1 vote, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners were not "investigative or law enforcement officers," and were therefore shielded from liability under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).

The majority said it was "sympathetic" to concerns that its decision would leave fliers with "very limited legal redress" for alleged mistreatment by aggressive or overzealous screeners, which adds to the ordinary stresses of air travel.

"For most people, TSA screenings are an unavoidable feature of flying," but it is "squarely in the realm" of Congress to expand liability for abuses, Circuit Judge Cheryl Ann Krause wrote.

The FTCA generally affords the government sovereign immunity when employees commit intentional torts, a type of civil wrong.

Wednesday's decision was the first by a federal appeals court on whether a waiver of immunity for investigative and law enforcement officers extended to screeners.

Last year, the TSA initiated new "pat-down" procedures that were more intrusive than before.  Not surprisingly, incidents like this became more common:

She required me to assist her in my sexual assault.  I had to lift my shirt to give her clear access to my waistband, into which she thrust her blue-latex-gloved fingers and ran them all around the front and back of it.  She made me hold my pants in place from the top as she crouched down and firmly ran her hands from the top of my legs to the bottom, both front, back and sides.  She firmly pushed and rubbed her hands between my legs, the entire area – THE ENTIRE AREA – from the front and back.

She finally directed me to hold out my hands, palms up, as she swabbed them with damp squares of white tissue, which she inserted into a machine that I assume "sniffed" for explosive residue.  When it gave my hands the all-clear, she indicated that I was free to go.

The appeals court ruled on an unrelated case, that included charges of false imprisonment and malicious prosecution:

U.S. Attorney William McSwain in Philadelphia, whose office defended TSA screeners, said the decision reflected Congress' desire to balance the government's sovereign immunity and "duty to protect taxpayer dollars" against the need to provide remedies for some plaintiffs.

The 3rd Circuit hears appeals from Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

According to court papers, Pellegrino had been randomly selected for additional screening at the Philadelphia airport before boarding a US Airways flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Pellegrino, then 57, objected to the invasiveness of the screening, but conditions deteriorated and she was eventually jailed for about 18 hours and criminally charged, the papers show. She was acquitted at a March 2008 trial.

Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro dissented from Wednesday's decision, faulting the majority for barring victims of TSA abuses from recoveries "by analogizing TSA searches to routine administrative inspections."

The history of the TSA is similar to the history of any government bureaucracy.  The agency started out with relatively little power, which gradually expanded as its budget increased and its employees were given (or they grabbed) more and more power.  The more powerful they get, the more arrogance displayed toward their putative clients – the flying public.

It would be one thing if the TSA actually performed the job for which it was created: protecting the flying public.  But a recent test of TSA procedures found that they failed to detect threats 95% of the time.

Ill mannered, surly screeners who know they have absolute power over passengers has been a fact of air travel for years.  Now passengers who feel they've been abused have no recourse in the courts to make the TSA pay.

It makes you think we'd all be better off if the TSA were eliminated and airport security placed in the hands of private companies.

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