This past weekend I traveled to Colorado. As with all experiences at the airport, I was forced to wait in line, remove my belt and shoes, and stand in line until after I passed through the X-Ray machine. Even after that, I had a more thorough search done on myself and to my belongings. I didn’t challenge the searches, but wondering what would have happened if I did made me think: What rights do I have when being searched at an airport, why can TSA look through my stuff and conduct these invasive screenings?

Protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, a fundamental right, is delineated in the 4th amendment to the Constitution. How does the 4th Amendment come into play at the airport?

The “Administrative Search Exception” to the 4th amendment applies to screenings at an airport. The administrative search exception balances the privacy expectations of individuals against possible threats to security and safety. At an airport, this exception prevails, as the value of preventing people with explosives, weapons, or drugs from boarding planes far outweigh the privacy interests of the individual. An airport is an administrative agency. The law requires that all individuals go through security screening before being able to fly, so in order to fly, a person must consent to this type of search.

The law on airport searches evolved from a 9th circuit case decided in 1973, U.S. vs Davis, 482 F.2d 893. Such searches are considered to be administrative because “they are conducted as part of a general regulatory scheme, where the essential administrative purpose is to prevent the carrying of weapons or explosives aboard aircraft.” Id. at 908. The court goes on to say that searches should not be “more intrusive or intensive than necessary, in light of current technology, to detect weapons or explosives, confined in good faith to that purpose, and passengers may avoid the search by electing not to fly.

Not all searches at an airport fall within that administrative search exception. Reasonable suspicion would be required for searches such as strip searches, body cavity searches, or searches of password protected or locked devices and effects.

If you have any questions about this, or any other legal topics that interest you, feel free to email me at neumarka@gmail.com

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Allen Neumark
Allen is a 3rd-year law student and aspiring future-attorney currently studying at Florida International University's College of Law in Miami, Florida. With undergraduate degrees in both political science and criminology, he has the background and expertise to give sound, logical, and informative takes on a variety of the issues facing today's society.