On Saturday, Bloomberg News reported that a significant new ruling from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia will enable airline passengers to sue the Transportation Security Administration for incidents like damaged luggage, overly handsy inspections, and wrongful detention.
The case stemmed from an incident at Philadelphia International Airport, in which Florida woman Nadine Pellegrino was selected by TSA officers for additional screening. After the search, she crawled under an inspection table to retrieve her bags, and accidentally tipped over the table, which landed on an officer’s foot. She was promptly arrested and charged with 10 federal crimes, including aggravated assault and “possession of an instrument of crime” — the “instrument,” they argued, being the luggage itself.
These charges were ultimately dismissed, but Pellegrino sued the agency.
A district judge and a panel of three appellate judges ruled that Pellegrino had no standing to sue the TSA because its agents are simply baggage screeners, not law enforcement officials, and thus are protected by a broad federal immunity granted administrative workers for going about their business.
But the Third Circuit reheard the case en banc, and the full court ruled 9-4 to overturn this decision, holding that TSA officers are in fact law enforcement officials, “by dint of their title, badge, and authority.” If these officers are not law enforcement, the court ruled, then Pellegrino and others like her “will have no remedy when TSOs assault them, wrongfully detain them, or even fabricate criminal charges against them.”
This decision could have profound consequences for the public accountability of the TSA, which in recent years has come under fire for a number of scandals including damaged or stolen baggage and deliberate groping of passengers.