TSA detention of Pa. student in 2009 remains a federal case of stupidity

    When Nick George arrived at the Philadelphia airport to head back to college in California, he expected a little extra scrutiny in the post-911 age.

    Though he was a U.S. citizen, a regular college kid with no accent, he had a Jordanian stamp on his passport from his Middle East travels, and his backpack held some Arabic/English flash cards from a language course he was taking.

    George got scrutiny all right. He missed his flight and was detained for five hours, two of them, he says, in handcuffs on a bench at an airport police station. No explanation, no chance to call anyone or consult a lawyer. When the FBI eventually arrived, they quickly concluded he was no threat and released him.

    The result was a federal lawsuit, which led to an appeals court ruling this week, which at least momentarily clears the federal officials involved in the incident — Transportation Security Administration screeners and the FBI agents. George’s attorneys may appeal that ruling, and his civil suit against the Philadelphia police remains active.

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    It didn’t have to be this way

    I wrote about George’s detention after it happened four years ago. I spoke to him, the Philadelphia police and a TSA spokeswoman.

    As I said, George expected to get some extra questions. It had happened before. And it didn’t help him that the flash cards, which had plenty of innocuous expressions, also included “explosion” and “terrorist.”

    He was subjected to an intensive body search, again to be expected, which turned up nothing threatening.

    He said the TSA officers kept him at a screening area for 45 minutes, and a supervisor came over to ask more questions.

    “Do you know who did 9/11?” he said that the woman asked.

    George said that he told her that it was Osama bin Laden, and that she responded smugly, “Do you know what language Osama bin Laden spoke?”

    You have to wonder, did the TSA think he was learning how to conduct a hijacking in Arabic?

    In the middle of the questioning, a Philadelphia police officer slapped cuffs on him, led him through the terminal and placed him in cell. He says he sat there in cuffs for two hours. After a supervisor took the cuffs off, he waited a few more hours until a pair of FBI agents arrived and questioned him for a half hour before releasing him.

    The account I got from the TSA spokeswoman differed from that of the police lieutenant I spoke to in several respects, including whether George was pulled aside because of the flash cards or because (this is the TSA version) he exhibited behavior in the security line that aroused suspicion.

    George told me that was nonsense, that he was a “model prisoner” throughout, answering questions and never raising his voice because he just wanted to get on his way.

    George eventually filed suit alleging violations of his First and Fourth Amendment rights. You can read his initial complaint here, as well as this week’s ruling from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here.

    TSA actions deemed ‘reasonable’ — but barely

    Judge Theodore McKee didn’t exactly endorse the conduct of the security officials, but concluded that they acted reasonably enough to exempt them from civil action.

    McKee’s decision is a little curious in some respects. He concludes it was reasonable for TSA to detain George “briefly,” given the circumstances, though he notes that the TSA detention was “at the outer boundary of the Fourth Amendment.”

    And he thinks the FBI held him no longer than necessary to determine he wasn’t a threat.

    But McKee seems to regard George’s much longer detention by the Philadelphia police as having nothing to do with the TSA or the FBI, as if a police officer on his way to get a soda just decided to slap handcuffs on George.

    In fact, the TSA spokeswoman I spoke with in 2009 said it was the TSA that summoned the Philly cops, based on George’s behavior.

    I got some angry comments when I wrote about this before (and I’m sure I will again) from readers who think George should just shut up and understand that security in a post-911 world will inconvenience us sometimes, and that there was reason enough to give him a close look.

    I don’t disagree, and Nick George didn’t either. This case hasn’t defined his life, and in fact he didn’t return my call about the decision this week. I spoke briefly to his father, who said Nick is celebrating the holiday with his family.

    But I’m convinced the case would never have been filed if the authorities had shown a modicum of courtesy and common sense.

    They could have at least let him call his parents, who were worried sick and unable to get any information. There was no need to leave him handcuffed (as a supervisor finally realized after two hours). And, of course, from beginning to end, nobody apologized or explained anything.

    The attitude reminds me of this horrific story by a producer from On The Media, which is worth listening to.Treat people with respect, and you can avoid a lot of time and expense in court.

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