Civil Liberties

TSA Responds to Detainment of Campaign for Liberty Staffer


The TSA has responded on its blog to last week's story about the detainment of Steve Bierfeldt, a staffer for Ron Paul's Campaign for Liberty organization, at a St. Louis airport. The staffer recorded his interaction with TSA agents and police officers while he was detained, apparently for not giving a satisfactory explanation why he was carrying $4,700 in cash. The TSA's response:

At approximately 6:50 p.m. on March 29, 2009, a metal box alarmed the X-ray machine at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, triggering the need for additional screening. Because the box contained a number of items including a large amount of cash, all of which needed to be removed to be properly screened, it was deemed more appropriate to continue the screening process in a private area. A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employee and members of the St. Louis Airport Police Department can be heard on the audio recording. The tone and language used by the TSA employee was inappropriate. TSA holds its employees to the highest professional standards. TSA will continue to investigate this matter and take appropriate action.

Movements of large amounts of cash through the checkpoint may be investigated by law enforcement authorities if criminal activity is suspected. As a general rule, passengers are required to cooperate with the screening process. Cooperation may involve answering questions about their property, including why they are carrying a large sum of cash. A passenger who refuses to answer questions may be referred to appropriate authorities for further inquiry.

The response raises a number of questions. How does carrying a large amount of cash impair the safety of air travel? Weapons I could see. But cash?

Also, merely carrying even large sums of cash is not enough in itself for someone to be legally detained. There needs to be some other sign of illegal activity. What else about Bierfeldt made the TSA agents suspect him of criminal activity? What is the maximum amount of cash you can carry in an airport without being expected to explain to TSA agents why you're carrying it?

Will the public be told what disciplinary action is taken against the agents who acted inappropriately? Will Bierfeldt?

From a policy standpoint, it also seems like a bad idea for the agency charged with ensuring the safety of airline passengers to distract itself by policing for crimes unrelated to airline safety, too. Of course, in this case, the only "crime" was an airline passenger carrying a large amount of cash, and asking the screeners to tell him what law compells him to answer their questions.