An angry aide to Rep. Ron Paul, an iPhone and $4,700 in cash have forced the Transportation Security Administration to quietly issue two new rules telling its airport screeners they can only conduct searches related to airplane safety.
In response, the American Civil Liberties Union is dropping its lawsuit on behalf of Steve Bierfeldt, the man who was detained in March and who recorded the confrontation on his iPhone as TSA and local police officers spent half an hour demanding answers as to why he was carrying the money through Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
The new rules, issued in September and October, tell officers “screening may not be conducted to detect evidence of crimes unrelated to transportation security” and that large amounts of cash don’t qualify as suspicious for purposes of safety.
“We had been hearing of so many reports of TSA screeners engaging in wide-ranging fishing expeditions for illegal activities,” said Ben Wizner, a staff lawyer for the ACLU, pointing to reports of officers scanning pill-bottle labels to see whether the passenger was the person who obtained the prescription as one example.
He said screeners get a narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches, strictly to keep weapons and explosives off planes, not to help police enforce other laws.
TSA has repeatedly bumped heads against civil libertarians, who argue officers overstep their authority.
The directive tells screeners that “traveling with large amounts of currency is not illegal,” and that to the extent bulk quantities of cash warrant searching, it is only to further security objectives, the ACLU said.
The ACLU sued in June on behalf of Mr. Bierfeldt, who was detained after he sent a metal box with $4,700 in cash and checks through an X-ray machine at the airport.
He had the cash as part of his duties as director of development for the Campaign for Liberty, the offshoot group that Mr. Paul, Texas Republican, created from his presidential bid.
Mr. Bierfeldt recorded audio of the confrontation on his iPhone, including threats, insults and repeated questions about where he obtained the money.
“Are you from this planet?” one officer told him, while another accused him of acting like a child for asking what part of the law forced him to answer their questions about the money.
Some civil liberties activists speculate that TSA wants passengers to be uncertain about its procedures because it gives more power to the authorities in an encounter.