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.
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.
“TSA routinely assesses its policies and screening procedures to ensure the highest levels of security nationwide,” she said. “Currency alone is not a threat, and TSA does not restrict the amount of currency a traveler may carry through the checkpoint.”
TSA had earlier defended the search, though it had criticized officers’ abusive behavior.
The ACLU released the September directive because TSA included it in a public court filing, but said when TSA gave it the October directive it was instructed not to publish it.
That second directive tells screeners that “traveling with large amounts of currency is not illegal,” and that to the extent bulk quantities of cash warrant searching, it is only to further security objectives, the ACLU said.
The ACLU sued in June on behalf of Mr. Bierfeldt, who was detained after he sent a metal box with $4,700 in cash and checks through an X-ray machine at the airport.
He had the cash as part of his duties as director of development for the Campaign for Liberty, the offshoot group that Mr. Paul, Texas Republican, created from his failed presidential bid.
Mr. Bierfeldt recorded audio of the confrontation on his iPhone, including threats, insults and repeated questions about where he obtained the money.
“Are you from this planet?” one officer told him, while another accused him of acting like a child for asking what part of the law forced him to answer their questions about the money.
“The TSA has stated that their policy is going to change, which is basically what we were after all along,” Mr. Bierfeldt told 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.