We’ve written about the TSA’s so-called VIPR teams many times, but most Americans still don’t know about them. These teams conduct warrantless searches on all modes of transportation all over the country — buses, trains, subways, ferries. Even highways. Yes, that means the TSA isn’t only at the airport.
The TSA paired up recently with local Austin, Texas police to do a crime/drug sweep of morning passengers heading to Dallas at the Lamar Amtrak station. Frankly, I’m surprised the police believe they have the right to do this, because according to a spate of lawsuits, they’re skating on thin legal ice.
First, a little history. Let’s separate the TSA from the police. It has been very specifically ruled that the TSA is not a law enforcement agency and cannot by law search for anything but weapons, incendiaries, or explosives (also see US v. Fofana). So in a crime/drug sweep, just what are they doing?
Oh, I get it — Thousands Standing Around.
Next let’s move on to local law enforcement. There is much case law about legal and illegal police searches, covering many different scenarios. There are different rules for home searches, for searching people using public transportation, for the use of technology, and for the use of dogs — a truckload of cases defining current law regarding the Fourth Amendment.
In Bond v. US (also see here), it was held that a person has a legal expectation of privacy if their luggage is stored in an overhead compartment (referring to a bus or other public transportation, not airplanes), and that any police manipulation of that luggage constitutes illegal search and seizure.
In City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, the Supreme Court struck down random drug searches at checkpoints (see here).
In Illinois v. Caballes, it was “held that drug-sniffing dogs may be used during routine traffic stops (but not at checkpoints).”
In Florida v. Bostick, it was “held that evidence obtained during random bus searches, if conducted with the passengers’ consent (even if the passenger feels compelled by circumstances to agree), is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.”
And then there is controversy about just how reliable drug dogs are, coloring probable cause (see here).
There are all sorts of erosions of Fourth Amendment rights, especially when cars and homes are involved. You can see the cites to the cases in this and the preceding paragraph here.
My takeaway? Do NOT consent, even if you are pressured. Just say no to local law enforcement. You might have to say yes to Amtrak police to catch your train. If you don’t agree to letting Amtrak check your luggage, they will give you back your money.
Is it worth taking a later train to enforce your civil rights? Are you strong-willed enough to stare massive police coercion in the eye and refuse to cooperate? That’s a question that only you can answer.