A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Transportation Security Administration screeners who operate the checkpoints at the nation's airports cannot be sued over allegations of abuse.
The court acknowledged that, as a result, passengers have limited legal options even in the face of overt misconduct.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia held that agency officers enjoy sovereign immunity because, despite their badges and titles as "officers," they do not qualify as "investigative or law enforcement officers" who could be held legally responsible for abuses under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
The court also revisited the question of when a search should trigger Fourth Amendment protections and found that screeners are more like federal meat inspectors than police officers.
"[W]e are sympathetic to the concerns this may raise as a matter of policy, particularly given the nature and frequency of TSOs' contact with the flying public," the opinion says, using an abbreviation for transportation security officer.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Thomas Ambro noted that the majority's opinion would bar passengers from filing legal claims even in the most extreme cases, such as when screeners at Denver International Airport were accused of manipulating security procedures so they could grope attractive male passengers.
"Their opinion leaves several plaintiffs without a remedy, even if a TSO assaults them, wrongfully detains them, or fabricates criminal charges against them," Ambro wrote. "I do not believe this is what Congress intended."
The case was filed by Nadine Pellegrino, who was arrested after a physical confrontation with screening agents at Philadelphia International Airport in 2006.
Pellegrino asked for a private screening after objecting to the agent's treatment of her and her luggage. But she objected to how that screening was handled, too, saying it was rough and invasive.
After the screening, Pellegrino began collecting her luggage and knocked two of the agents with the bags, according to the agency. Pellegrino was arrested and charged with several crimes but was acquitted at least in part because of rulings and circumstances that limited agents' trial testimony, the court opinion says.
Pellegrino filed suit in 2009. a district court granted relief for property damage but said screening agents could not be held individually liable for their conduct.
A Section on 07/12/2018
Print Headline: Court rules airport screeners immune in abuse suits