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What are the limits on TSA officers' investigations?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 22, 2009 - The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit on behalf of a Ron Paul campaign aide who was detained and questioned at Lambert Field this past March by Transportation Security Administration officers who were suspicious because he was carrying $4,700 in cash.

The ACLU suit alleges that the detention had nothing to do with flight safety and violated Steven Bierfeldt's Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches. The suit asks for a federal court in Washington, D.C., to issue a declaratory judgment that the search was illegal.

On March 29, Bierfeldt was stopped at Lambert and interrogated in a small room by TSA officials for about 30 minutes after he passed a metal box containing cash through a security checkpoint X-ray machine. Bierfeldt was questioned as he returned home from a Campaign for Liberty event transporting proceeds from the sale of tickets, T-shirts, stickers and campaign material. Bierfeldt is director of development for the Campaign for Liberty, a political group that grew out of Paul's presidential campaign.

In an exchange that Bierfeldt caught on an iPhone, TSA officers repeatedly asked why he was carrying such a large amount of cash. He responded by asking if he was required by law to answer the question.

At one point, a TSA official said in exasperation, "Are you from this planet?" TSA officials eventually indicated they were taking Bierfeldt to the police station. But a plain clothes agent, checking into the situation, noticed that the money appeared to be related to political activities. The agent asked if the money was campaign contributions and Bierfeldt said it was. The agent then told him he was free to go.

Ben Wizner, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project said in a statement, "Airport searches are the most common encounters between Americans and law enforcement agents. That's why it is so important for TSA agents to do the job they were trained to do and not engage in fishing expeditions that do nothing to promote flight safety.

"It is, of course, very important to ensure the safety of flights and keep illegal weapons and explosives off planes. But allowing TSA screeners to conduct general purpose law enforcement searches violates the Constitution while diverting limited resources from TSA's core mission of protecting safety. For the sake of public safety and constitutional values, these unlawful searches should stop."

In an ACLU statement, Bierfeldt said, "I do not believe I should give up my constitutional rights each time I choose to travel by plane. I was doing nothing illegal or suspicious, yet I was treated like a potential criminal and harassed for no reason. Most Americans would be surprised to learn that TSA considers simply carrying cash to be a basis for detention and questioning. I hope the court makes clear that my detention by TSA agents was unconstitutional and stops TSA from engaging in these unlawful searches and arrests. I do not want another innocent American to have to endure what I went through."

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.

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