One of the worst parts about flying a commercial airline in the United States, post-9/11, is having to deal with the Transportation Security Administration. Since it was first created in the same process that created the Department of Homeland Security, it has evolved into an organization that most American citizens outright despise.
A new ruling from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals is not likely to make the TSA any more popular with frequent fliers. In a 2-1 vote, a panel of judges ruled that screeners for the government agency are shielded by ‘government sovereign immunity’ under the Federal Tort Claims Act because they are not investigative or law enforcement officers. In other words, it is difficult, nearly impossible, to sue screeners for mistreatment. Perhaps most shameful, one of the judges tried to pawn the blame for her poor decision off on Congress.
Basically, these people can now do whatever they want, to whoever they want, without fear of punishment.
Nadine Pellegrino and her husband sued the agency for false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution due to a July 2006 altercation that occurred at the Philadelphia International Airport.
According to filings with the court, Pellegrino had been ‘randomly’ selected for ‘additional screening’ at Philadelphia’s airport before they could board their US Airways flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The traveler went to the additional screening, which occurred in a private room, with Nuyriah Abdul-Malik and Laura Labbee, the TSA Supervisor. While there, she noticed that Abdul-Malik was roughly handling her property, damaging her bags, and being vindictive in general.
When they released her from the ordeal, she took her bag and her items to a table outside so she could re-pack. Without her noticing, the agents of the federal government threw out at least three of her items.
Then, before she could leave, Labbee told her that she was being re-detained, and that she had to surrender her driver’s license.
Moments later, the TSA’s leadership at the airport, along with a number of Philadelphia police officers, came. The two TSA agents claimed that Pellegrino assaulted them, and demanded her arrest, and a third agent even claimed that she witnessed the assault (she could not possibly have done so).
The traveler spent the next 18 hours in a jail cell until her husband could pay her bail.
If this sounds like a nightmarish story of what happens when mediocre government workers, bored with their lives, venomous in their disposition, and provided far more power than they should have get angry, it’s not the only such story of horrific abuses of power by agents of the TSA, a subdivision of the Department of Homeland Security.
According to the two judges in the majority, including Circuit Judge Cheryl Ann Krause, it is “squarely in the realm” of Congress to expand liability for abuses by passing laws. However, she stood by the decision to provide the TSA with a ruling that shielded them from much of the liability for their actions.
Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro was the only one to not show undue deference to the federal agency. In his dissent, Ambro said that the decision of his colleagues basically allows the agency, and its members, to act as they would like, without any meaningful method for remedy for a variety of intentional tort claims.
Assuming that Pellegrino’s entire account is true, three TSA agents essentially stole her property (throwing it in a trash can without her knowledge or consent, and without just cause), filled out false police reports against her, and had her unlawfully held without basis by a correctional facility.
Thanks to the ruling today, those agents don’t have to be worried that they’ll be held responsible if they do it again; at worst, if they’re caught engaging in such criminal conduct, they’ll lose their overpaid government job and be ineligible for a job with another government agency.
That’s not much of a punishment for abusing their position to the point that someone ends up in jail, an experience that can be stressful for anyone.
Of course, this ruling shouldn’t be unexpected to anyone who has observed how government takes steps to limit its liability for bad behavior.
Whether at the state or federal level, it is unacceptable to think that the government should be able to exempt itself from torts that private industry has to be held accountable to.
Governments should be more accountable to the people for their actions, not less so.