What rights do you have if stopped by Customs/INS/Airport Security and...

I was reading some of the travel horror stories (in the Mr Asshole - Passport Control thread and other places), and I mentioned to my husband how some woman in a CNN newsstory was strip searched and how awful I think that is. Husband says they have the right to do that. I asked if you can’t simply refuse and just not board the plane (because I’d rather not fly than be strip searched), and he said sure, but then they’d call the cops and the cops would search you anyway.

So, I have some questions for the Teeming Millions. Say you are traveling in the US (either from one US locale to another, or from a foreign country to the US). In the airport, someone official stops you and questions you. First off, how do you know who they are (INS, Customs, Rent-A-Cop). Secondly how much power do each of these have over you? What rights do they have to search you or your things, to detain you, etc. And are these conditional (like they can strip search you if _______) or can they be based on someone just not liking the way you look? Third, what rights do you, the American citizen, have? Can you call a lawyer? If you cannot afford one, will one be provided for you? Do you have the right not to answer questions? And fourth, if you exercise your rights, can they simply call the cops on you? And do the cops then have reasonable cause to search you, arrest you, etc.?

I think you are confusing several situations. One thing is if you want to board a plane in which case you need to go through a security screening and another very different case is if you arrive from a foreign country in which case you need to go through customs and immigration. The only way to avoid that is to stay out of the country.

I don’t want to avoid going through Customs – I’ve done that and it’s fairly painless. And you’re right, I think my question did confuse two different situations. But I think what I asked still stands: If things go beyond the normal questions one gets asked when boarding a plane or arriving in the US, it seems the only safeguard against things getting out of hand is to know what your rights are and what the rights of the airline/government are. Does that make sense?

Here’s a general overview.

Travel within the United States: the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizures. You are perfectly free to refuse to consent to a search; in turn, the government is perfectly free to require such a search before you board a plane. The travel is generally considered to be voluntary. You can avoid the search by refusing to board the plane.

The entry into the country is a different story. Notwithstanding the Fourth Amendment, the government has the right to search any person or cargo entering the country.

The types of searches and the level of suspicion required in each type of search have been amply discussed elsewhere on the board - do a search for ‘Terry stop’.

  • Rick

while one is certainly free to refuse a search in an airport, i have a sinking suspicion that doing so would result in a swarm of uniformed before one could say “Delaware v. Prouse”.

i would wager that, if one were flagged for an in-depth search of either one’s person or one’s effects, one would promptly be given a full once-over. and if anything suspicious were found, one would probably have to go through a series of appeals before one’s fourth amendment rights were recognized (if they even would be).


jb-farley: As it happens, I was present at one such event in February of this year, in which a woman refused to submit to a more thorough search at the initial screening checkpoint because, as she lyrically pointed out, she was not “a goddamned Arab”.

The security people told her that if she did not submit to the search, she would not be permitted to enter the secure area, and could not take her flight.

She told them she’d take a train, retrieved her bag, and left. Although several uniformed officers were nearby, including the one that told her she’d have to leave, she was permitted to depart without being searched.

Absent at least a reasonable, articulable suspicion of wrongdoing, any search of her would have been futile, since any evidence gained ultimately would have been suppressed - which is, of course, exactly what happened to the pot in Delaware v. Prouse. :slight_smile:

  • Rick

Bricker- sweet! i gladly stand corrected.


Yes, you have protection against unreasonable searches. However, that means there are still reasonable searches they can do. at the airport.

“The flip side is that the Fourth Amendment does permit searches and seizures that are considered reasonable. In practice, this means that the police may override your privacy concerns and conduct a search of your home, barn, car, boat, office, personal or business documents, bank account records, trash barrel or whatever”

Well, I can tell you from my SO who is in charge of one level of airport screening, ticketing and security at a major US airport that if any potential passenger threatens any of the staff in any manner (call them a “Bitch,” “Bastard,” “Fuck Head,” etc.) and then do anything else contrary to the posted regulations at security, your chances of flying out that day from that airport are virtually zero.

They had a woman just today ignore repeated warnings about entering an airport concourse from the exit area (where arriving passengers leave the secure concourse and enter the main public airport area) just to give her daughter one last hug – who had already entered the secure zone. The woman had walked passed several large (2’x3’) warning signs and barriers.

The lady was told to stop and leave immediately or she would be arrested and handcuffed on the spot. The woman stormed off calling everyone, “You’re all a bunch of fucking idiots,” to which my SO replied out loud, “We may be but at least we can read the signs!”

The departing passengers waiting in lines to enter security gave the security staff a rousing applause.

The hard part travellers seem to not understand is airport security are given little leeway when it comes to maintaining security. They must follow FAA regulations and the new security laws without favor or bias – meaning the laws/regulations cut them no discretionary slack. If your argue or really be stupid and actually “threaten” airport security staff, you can be arrested for making terrorist threats.

Notwithstanding Fourth Amendment search and seizure, your privacy rights are balanced against the security concerns of everyone else who is flying. Also, too, you are provided with sufficient warnings before you purchase a ticket when you book a flight, at the gate and at security. Yet people still show up at security carrying objects that are subject to confiscation. (Keep in mind that you are paying a private commercial carrier to transport you, and not the government. As such, carriers can impose restrictions, including searches, where the Fourth Amendment may have no protection for you. I’m still trying to get a clarification of this part from lawyer friends so don’t come down on me for it.)

Once you enter the secure areas of an airport you are subject to search at any time, as well as being subject to all the same laws/regulations you had to pass in order to get through security. For example, depending upon changing conditions if you enter security with the maximum two carryons, go to your gate, sit and wait (and in the process readjust your carryons to now have more than two in hand when time to board) you may be denied boarding at the gate. Hassle the airline boarding staff at that point and kiss goodbye your flight out that day, too.

Geez, it all sounds so fascist, and it very well may be. Yet my SO says that they find every day potential passengers deliberately attempting to smuggle board guns, knives, box cutters, razors, etc. Is it any wonder the slightest provcation will get you an extended search?

I don’t envy her in the job: No leeway with the law/regulations. People trying all the time to circumvent security, trying to smuggle things aboard planes, and worst of all being verbally harassed and threatened by potential passengers and their non-flying friends/relatives.

No wonder she is looking to find a better job, even after the raisies she received to stay. No wonder her staff turnover is worse. I know my SO does the best she can because for every nasty potential passenger episode, another ten passengers compliment her on her demeanor and professionalism at such a tough, crappy job. Unfortunately compliments cannot pay bills. :slight_smile:

I’m sure the next hijacking/terrorist attack that occurs though our airport system will be blamed on airport security. However, from hearing details firsthand of what really goes on, I’d lay much of that blame on a flying public who thinks every passenger is unique and not subject to the security laws and regulations.

Oh, Duckster, don’t worry. I am not at all interested in attempting to smuggle anything onto a plane, and I have no reason to disregard any regulations.

All this attention to airports is great, but do you folks in the interior states know that you can be searched on the highway, too? The Border Patrol operates check points approximately 75 miles (I think) from Mexico on each of the highways that head north. Each car must stop and be subjected to a search. I assure you, the search does not feel voluntary. Since my wife, kids, and I are all white, the search is usually very cursory. Sometimes, however, I’ve seen darker folks get a more thorough going-over. Times I have travelled alone, I also get a more serious look. I haven’t been that far south since Sept 11, so things may have gotten more strict.

I just read in the news the airlines will stop asking at airports the two stupid questions: Did you pack your own luggage? and Has it been under your control since you packed it? It took the Feds all these years to figure out that asking these questions has not prevented a single criminal act.