TSA shows up at Austin Amtrak station


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.

(Photo: caninevisionsmaui.blogspot.com)

  • Chris Bray

    Amtrak Police — my goodness, there’s another agency every bit as impressive as the TSA. Imagine spending your entire adult life being an Amtrak cop.

    • Susan Richart

      As long as Amtrak is not scanning and groping passengers, it’s a far, far better choice than working for the TSA.

    • Saul B

      What’s your beef with Amtrak’s cops? I don’t see them barking at passengers to line their bags up for the dog to sniff.

  • Daisiemae

    What I find chilling is the text right above the dogs’ heads: “No one is above suspicion.” That frightens me so much I can’t even comment on it.

    • Daisiemae, yes, and unfortunately it’s accurate. That’s how our government thinks of us. And that’s how millions of Americans think of themselves as well.

  • Bob

    Yes lets be clear on this. Amtrak police reserve the right to inspect your bags. The TSA and local PD have no authority in this area. Amtrak police are essentially contracting with the TSA. Using their drug dogs to perform the search. The “VIPR” member has zero authority to search your bags. Officially they are not searching, they are assisting. Yes it is BS. Yes it it stupid. Any “bad guy” deterred by airport security can tell the “VIPR” guys to pound sand, and Amtrak police will give them their money and escourt them off the platform. Completely useless and ineffective program that does nothing. Govt welfare.

  • Hey–I thought Amtrak had a blanket “ban” on any TSA on the premises following the VIPR-flap in Savannah, GA. http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/06/opinion/don-phillips-tsa-vipr-teams/index.html

    • 1amWendy

      Unfortunately Mr. O’Connor, former head of Amtrak security, retired last year (after Savannah). His successor is apparently more amenable to being complicit in the abrogation of Fourth Amendment rights.

      • CelticWhisper

        There’s a discussion on TUG regarding this wherein I’ve posted drafts of another of my (celebrated, apparently – I’m just happy to help) Congressional letters, and the discussion has turned to sending copies to the new Amtrak PD chief as well as the Austin, TX PD.

        It looks like I’ll be including them both, though I’m not holding out much hope that the Austin chief will give a damn.

    • Scott, click the “VIPR” link in 1st paragraph of Wendy’s post. You’ll see that “without permission” is the key phrase. Though as Wendy said in her reply, John O’Connor has retired anyway. So who knows if his successor is giving that permission more freely these days.