Travelers Get Green Light From Court to Sue Airport Screeners
(Bloomberg) -- A U.S. appeals court has rejected the notion that federal airport screeners are immune from lawsuits filed by aggrieved travelers.
In a 9-4 decision, the Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled that Transportation Security Officers, given their authority to conduct invasive searches of travelers, are essentially law enforcement officers and as such aren’t covered by the immunity granted to most federal agencies and employees.
The ruling overturns a lower court judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit brought by Nadine Pellegrino of Florida who claimed her belongings were damaged during a search at Philadelphia International Airport and she was falsely arrested.
Writing for the majority, Judge Thomas Ambro said if the TSOs aren’t law enforcement officers then people “like Pellegrino will have no remedy when TSOs assault them, wrongfully detain them, or even fabricate criminal charges against them.”
The judge said he didn’t expect a floodgate of lawsuits to result from the decision, noting in 2015 fewer than 200 people, from more than 700 million screened, filed complaints that would warrant such a lawsuit.
Pellegrino said she was passing through a security checkpoint at the airport when she was randomly selected for additional screening. After the search, she crawled under a table to retrieve one of her bags and, she says, accidentally tipped over the table. It hit one of the screeners’ legs and she was arrested and charged with 10 crimes, including aggravated assault and possession of an instrument of a crime -- her luggage.
The charges were dismissed or dropped, and Pellegrino sued.
A federal judge tossed out the lawsuit, concluding that TSOs are just screeners who inspect passengers and bags. A divided three-judge appeals court panel upheld that decision. But the full court of 13 judges agreed to rehear the case and ruled that screeners are law enforcement officers “by dint of their title, badge, and authority.”
Writing for the minority, Judge Cheryl Ann Krause said Congress had only exempted from the immunity provision officers with “traditional police powers,” and any expansion of that provision should be left to the politicians and not the courts.
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