Civil Liberties

TSA is Hard at Work, Protecting Air Travel from Your Car Freshener


US Government

Much has been made of the Transportation Security Administration's efforts to expand its role beyond airports, to train stations, bus depots, cruise ships and beyond. TSA VIPR teams have played a pivotal role in America's ongoing effort to turn the simple act of traveling into a nostalgia tour through 1970s-era East Germany. So it's no shocker that the TSA has reached just a bit beyond airport terminals, and into neighboring parking lots. News10 of Rochester, New York, reports that drivers who have valets park their cars at the local airport are returning to find that their cars have been tossed at the behest of the TSA.

From News10:

Laurie Iacuzza walked to her waiting car at the Greater Rochester International Airport after returning from a trip and that's when she found it—a notice saying her car was inspected after she left for her flight. She said, "I was furious. They never mentioned it to me when I booked the valet or when I picked up the car or when I dropped it off."

Iacuzza's car was inspected by valet attendants on orders from the TSA. But why only valet parked cars? That's what News10NBC wanted to ask the TSA director about.  We reached him by phone.

Berkeley Brean asked, "Are the cars in the short term lots and long term lots getting searched as well?"

John McCaffery, TSA, said, "No, those vehicles that are in the garage, short term long term parking, even if they carry pretty large amounts of explosives, they would not cause damage to the front of the airport. But for those who use the valet, the car could be there for a half hour or an hour so there is a vulnerability."

That makes no sense unless you believe (and it's possible that the TSA does) that all bombs are detonated by sputtering, cartoon-style fuses that take forever to burn down to a keg of black powder. If the TSA is truly worried about car bombs at the curb, all of those private vehicles and taxis making drop-offs and pickups would seem to be of equal concern to cars left with a valet.

(Having written the above, I apologize in advance to all of those air travelers who will soon be forced to park miles from the terminal and walk their luggage in by muscle power alone.)

My guess is that the valet-parked cars alone are searched because the TSA has nominal consent. At least, they're supposed to have something they can interpret as consent. News10 reports, "We also noticed a large sign that alerts customers that their vehicle will be inspected. The sign is on the kiosk window. Iacuzza says it was not there when she dropped off her car. … News10NBC asked the owner of the company that runs the valet parking when they put up the sign but he wouldn't answer."

Leaving your car with a valet standing by a TSA-sourced sign strikes me as a sketchy grant of consent, but it just might be good enough for a judge, these days.

The TSA told News10 that the car searches are part of an "overall security plan." I've asked the agency how widely this plan is being applied, and to what extent Fourth Amendment concerns have been satisfied. I'll update once I get an answer.