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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Asks Appeals Court to Uphold Right of Citizens to Sue Government, TSA Over Misconduct During Airline Screening

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Warning that government abuse of power at any level must not be allowed to stand unchecked, The Rutherford Institute is challenging a ruling that grants immunity to Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers who engage in official misconduct. In denouncing a lower court ruling that prevents citizens from suing the government for even intentional misconduct by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers in the course of screening airline passengers, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute, the Cato Institute, and the ACLU have asked the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate the lawsuit filed on behalf of Nadine Pellegrino, who was frisked, handcuffed, arrested and detained by police for 18 hours, allegedly in retaliation after she objected to the way TSA officers treated her and her possessions during the screening process. 

“Placing TSA agents in our nation’s airports didn’t make us safer. It simply subjected Americans to invasive groping, ogling and bodily searches by government agents. Now the government wants to extend immunity to TSA agents for official misconduct,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Frankly, the last thing we need is for the government to give itself and its agents, especially the TSA, free rein to abuse the law. We’d be far better off if government officials understood that there are consequences for wrongdoing on the job.”

In July 2006, Nadine Pellegrino was randomly selected by a TSA officer for additional screening after passing through a metal detector at Philadelphia International Airport. As an officer began rummaging through her bags, Pellegrino complained that the officer was not treating her or her bags with respect and asked for a private screening. After directing Pellegrino to another room, three TSA officers again began searching both her belongings and her person. Pellegrino complained that the officers were treating her belongings too rough and were being unnecessarily invasive by searching and reading out her credit cards, counting her coins, rifling through her papers, and examining her cosmetics. Pellegrino informed the TSA supervisor who was present that she intended to file a complaint about the officers’ actions.

After completing their search, and refusing Pellegrino’s request that they repack her bags, two of the officers reported Pellegrino to the police, claiming that she had assaulted them by striking them with her bags as she was removing them from the room. The police frisked, handcuffed and arrested Pellegrino, taking her to the police station and holding her for 18 hours. She was eventually charged with 10 crimes, all of which were dismissed or found not to be sustained by the evidence. Pellegrino then brought civil claims against the agents and the United States for false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.

Although the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) makes the government liable for the intentional misconduct of “investigative and law enforcement officers,” the courts ruled that TSA agents are not “investigative and law enforcement officers” because they are not involved in criminal law enforcement. In its amicus brief, The Rutherford Institute and its coalition partners argue that the effect of the ruling against Pellegrino is to deprive citizens of any remedy against TSA agents who abuse their power.

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