A Florida man was arrested after Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) agents found child pornography pictures when searching his bag before a flight. In this case, the man checked a bag at the airport and proceeded to wait for his flight. Without his knowledge, TSA agents apparently randomly selected his luggage and searched it for explosives or other dangerous materials. The TSA agent found a folder in the suitcase and looked through it. Inside the folder, the TSA agent found several child pornography pictures. The police were called, and they obtained a search warrant to search the suspect’s computer, flash drives, camera and other items found in his suitcase. A total of 196 child pornography pictures were found as a result of the search.
The defendant’s criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of child pornography claiming that the TSA agent’s search of his suitcase and the folder went beyond the scope of what is appropriate for a search for explosives and other dangerous materials in an airport. In other words, the criminal defense attorney argued that the TSA agent went beyond the scope of what the Fourth Amendment allows when he opened the suspect’s folder and looked at the pictures so any evidence found in that search and the subsequent searches should be thrown out.
This kind of search, a routine search performed by a non-police officer government employee, is considered an administrative search and is governed by different laws than searches conducted by police officers. When police officers search someone, they typically need either permission, a search warrant or specific facts indicating the person is committing a crime. There is more leeway for administrative searches such as this one as there is a significant interest in making sure air travel is safe and people do not bring dangerous materials onto airplanes. Government agents are allowed to search people and their belongings in airports without a search warrant or probable cause as long as the search is reasonable and conducted for the limited purpose of making sure the person is not a danger to others. This does not give government employees the right to go through a person’s luggage and search every inch of it. Additionally, relatively unobtrusive technology exists that can search for weapons so TSA agents may be further limited in the searches they can conduct on their own.
In this case, the TSA had a policy of sending all luggage through a machine that detects explosives but also manually searching random suitcases. Normally, the TSA agents swab the luggage to test for explosives residue, but they also have discretion to search through papers and photographs. The court found that this search was legal. The court based its decision on the fact that the TSA policy permitted a random search, and the quick search of the folder in the luggage for explosives was not overly intrusive. As a result, the court found the search was not legal.
This case must have been a close call. It is a stretch to think that government agents can look through one’s paperwork and claim it is a search for explosives. Of course, appellate courts are not quick to let people walk in close cases after they have been found with almost 200 child pornography pictures.
People carrying child pornography pictures onto a plane and having their bags randomly searched is a fairly rare scenario. However, it is not uncommon for people to bring a small amount of drugs or pills for which they do not have a prescription onto a plane. Cases like these give the government more authority to look through a person’s private effects and use the excuse that they are searching for explosives or weapons as a basis for an intrusive search.