No Immunity for TSA Officers Sued Over Airport Arrest

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Advancing a lawsuit against the TSA, the en banc Third Circuit sided Friday with a woman who says airport security racked up bogus criminal charges against her after a gratuitous ordeal at baggage screening.

A baggage handler waits for luggage to arrive to sort and deliver to passengers at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va., on March 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

Nadine Pellegrino says it all began at the Philadelphia International Airport when she was trying to board a flight home to Florida with her husband. After she was randomly selected for additional screening, Pellegrino says Transportation Security Administration officers at brought her bags to a private room because she requested discretion.

Once the search, concluded, however, Pellegrino allegedly informed the officers that she planned to report them to her supervisor for excessive conduct. She says they went through her cellphone, counted her coins and currency, smelled each and every one of her cosmetics, and otherwise damaged her property during the ham-fisted search.

It was while Pellegrino was cleaning up the mess of her belongings, she says, that the officers then accused her of striking them. Federal prosecutors in turn brought 10 criminal counts against Pellegrino, only to abandon the case when TSA could not provide any surveillance video of the incident. As for the officers’ testimony, one failed to appear in court and the other was unable to keep the story straight.

Pellegrino now seeks damages for various violations, and the Third Circuit convened its full court this year to determine if the TSA officers have immunity under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

In a 9-3 ruling reversal today, the court found that immunity is not available because they qualify as “investigative or law enforcement officers.”

“Because TSOs are ‘officer[s] of the United States’ empowered to ‘execute searches’ for ‘violations of Federal law,’ Pellegrino’s lawsuit may proceed,” U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro wrote in the majority. 

“As nearly all of us can attest who have flown on an aircraft in the United States, the overwhelming majority of TSOs perform their jobs professionally despite far more grumbling than appreciation,” Ambro added in the conclusion of the 31-page opinion. “Their professionalism is commensurate with the seriousness of their role in keeping our skies safe. The life-and-death duties entrusted to them fall naturally within the ambit of the proviso.” 

Disputing these findings, U.S. Circuit Judge Cheryl Krause wrote in dissent that “administrative searches” such as those performed by TSA officers do not amount to law enforcement powers.

Attorneys for Pellegrino at the law firm McDermott Will did not respond to an email requesting comment. The federal government also did not return a request for comment, nor did attorneys at Kairys Rudovsky who submitted an amicus brief in the case with the ACLU.

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