Airport Security/Fourth Amendment

I’ve been travelling a lot in the past month: it’s why I haven’t been able write a post for a while.  (It’s not just the travelling, it’s the load of things I have to do when I get there.)  But I’ve been thinking about airport security, and the people who say that it violates their Fourth Amendment rights.

I can’t say that I’ve had a genuinely bad airport security experience.  I’ve never been groped or had my things maliciously searched, and I’ve never had an encounter with airport security staff–anywhere–that wasn’t completely professional.  On the other hand, it isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience.

Anyhow, the Fourth Amendment states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

OK: does airport security, as it’s currently practiced, constitute an ‘unreasonable search’?

While I rail against the government doing lots of things, I can’t rail against the principle of airport security.  Besides terrorists, there are other things that people might bring on airliners that are troublesome.  Everyone wants to get to their destination safely, and airport security is part of making that happen.   Perhaps it could be done better, smarter, or less obtrusively, but from where we’re starting, I’m not sure there are practical alternatives.

So there’s an obvious public interest involved, making airport searches reasonable.

But going further:

  • A US airliner is private property.  If there were no TSA, wouldn’t airlines still have the right to search you before flying, to make sure you weren’t carrying anything dangerous?  (Indeed, isn’t that what the airlines did before 11 September?)
  • I’ve traveled to other countries, and I’m not sure they have laws similar to our Fourth Amendment.  If I object to being searched in the US on Fourth Amendment grounds, does that objection go away when I travel from a place without a Fourth Amendment?

Yesterday morning, at the subway station on my way to work, the police had set up a random search table, with a TSA guy in his electric-blue shirt brandishing some kind of detection instrument.  I expected to be stopped: there were four cops and one TSA guy, and they looked like they needed something to do.  But they let me pass.

Searching people before they get on airplanes is unpleasant, but reasonable.

Searching people before a subway ride?  That’s worrisome.

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