Are there any rules at airport checkpoints?

We had a chance to ask some questions (starting at 55:00 of the video, although the entire panel is worth watching) of the TSA’s Chief Privacy Officer, Peter Pietra, when he showed up at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference to talk about the SPOT program, under which roving teams of TSA agents watch people in airports for a (secret, of course) checklist of “suspicious” behavior, question some of those people, and finger some of them for more intrusive search or further questioning when they reach the “screening” checkpoints.

Petra claimed that, “There isn’t any search or seizure … until the checkpoint”, even if you decline to respond to questions from the SPOT teams or other TSA agents.  But, “At the checkpoint, it’s a different story … There’s a ’special circumstances’ exception that would permit at least a reasonable search.”

But what does the TSA consider “reasonable”? In particular, once we get to the checkpoint, are we required to answer questions from the TSA?

“I don’t know,” Petra said.

If we decline to answer questions at a TSA checkpoint, does the TSA claim the authority to detain us, prevent us from traveling, or impose administrative sanctions?  Or is the maximum penalty for declining to answer TSA questions having to submit to a pat-down search and hand search of our carry-on baggage (”secondary screening”)?

“Once you get to the checkpoint, you have to ‘cooperate’ with screening.”

What does “cooperate” mean? Are there any guidelines that tell us what we are required to do to consitutute “cooperation” with screening at a checkpoint?

“I don’t know,” Petra again answered.

We asked Petra to try to find out, but we won’t hold our breath waiting for an answer.

10 Responses to “Are there any rules at airport checkpoints?”

  1. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » Courts and Congress finally start to rein in the TSA Says:

    [...] we’ve pointed out this failure to subject the TSA to the rule of law. See, for example, our most recent prior post on this topic, our agenda on the right to travel submitted to the Obama Administration and Congress [...]

  2. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » Rumors of a new administrator for the TSA Says:

    [...] under the Obama administration — if you can call it “policy” when there are no rules and the people in charge think their decisions aren’t subject to judicial review –  is [...]

  3. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » “Do I have the right to refuse this search?” Says:

    [...] not the only people asking questions about what travelers is and isn’t required of travelers at TSA checkpoints.  Here’s [...]

  4. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » TSA discloses discriminatory and improperly withheld procedures Says:

    [...] There are no legally binding rules (other than those provided by the federal Privacy Act, the U.S. Constitution, and international human rights treaties, all of which the TSA routinely ignores) specifying the limits of TSA authority at checkpoints, what you do and don’t have to do, and which questions you have to answer or orders you have to obey. [...]

  5. Consumer Travel Alliance » TSA discloses discriminatory and improperly withheld procedures Says:

    [...] There are no legally binding rules (other than those provided by the federal Privacy Act, the U.S. Constitution, and international human rights treaties, all of which the TSA routinely ignores) specifying the limits of TSA authority at checkpoints, what you do and don’t have to do, and which questions you have to answer or orders you have to obey. [...]

  6. TSA discloses discriminatory and improperly withheld procedures Says:

    [...] There are no legally binding rules (other than those provided by the federal Privacy Act, the U.S. Constitution, and international human rights treaties, all of which the TSA routinely ignores) specifying the limits of TSA authority at checkpoints, what you do and don’t have to do, and which questions you have to answer or orders you have to obey. [...]

  7. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » TSA reaches out to the Identity Project Says:

    [...] Does the TSA have any plans to promulgate regulations defining what orders travelers are required to comply with from TSA employees or contractors, and/or what questions travelers are required to answer, as a condition of being given TSA permission to proceed through checkpoints or board flights? (The Identity Project has received no response, after more than 6 months, to our FOIA requests for the TSA’s standard operating procedures, and of course those procedures are not binding regulations.) [...]

  8. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » Will the TSA ever follow any rules? Says:

    [...] There are no rules saying what travelers do or don’t have to do at TSA checkpoints. [...]

  9. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » How the TSA treats FOIA requesters it doesn’t like Says:

    [...] Edward Hasbrouck, a consultant to The Identity Project who has filed many of our FOIA requests (and asked questions of Mr. Petra and filed other FOIA requests for records related to Mr. Petra’s work): Ed is crazy as a [...]

  10. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » Can you fly without ID? Only if the TSA gives you permission. Says:

    [...] to the question, “Can you fly without ID?”, would start with the ID rules. But no, there are no rules about this or anything else the TSA does.  The TSA has “Standard Operating [...]

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