Claire Hirschkind was arrested for disobeying airport security and criminal trespass in December, after she refused what she termed an invasive pat-down at Austin's airport. “They insisted I let them squeeze my breasts and feel my crotch because it was the law,” said Hirschkind, who is still trying to get her name cleared.
Some state lawmakers want to hold the Transportation Security Administration accountable for such screenings, which they say are unnecessary and intrusive. Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, along with dozens of co-authors, is pushing a bill that would subject federal employees, including TSA agents, to a Class A misdemeanor if they inappropriately touch someone seeking access to a public building or means of transportation, or if they search an individual without probable cause of criminal activity.
"The safeguards instituted in the wake of a national tragedy to protect us from terrorists have somehow been transformed from prudent caution to ridiculous excess," Simpson said, "demanding that innocent travelers be treated as criminal suspects and surrender their personal dignity as a condition of travel."
TSA spokesman Luis Casanova said he couldn't comment on the pending legislation, but indicated that complaints about the screenings are negligible. He said the agency screens roughly 2 million people per day and that only 3 percent of passengers go through an enhanced pat-down. According to TSA data, the agency received nearly 5,800 complaints — 5,413 from pat-downs and 328 from full body scans — from October 2010 to February 2011. In all of 2010, TSA discovered more than 32,500 prohibited items, including 914 firearms, during airport checkpoint screening.
Austin resident Jason Stoddard, a Libertarian, said that while he supports the intent of the bill, he believes the authors should clarify how it's written. Federal employees currently hold immunity for acts they carry out while out duty, he said, and state officials are likely to face criminal charges from impeding TSA agents from doing their job. "And then who pays?" he asked. "Ultimately taxpayers pay."
Stoddard and Jon Roland, who ran for state attorney general in the last three elections, said lawmakers should instead push for a Federal Action Review Commission, an agency that would act as a grand jury in deciding the constitutionality of current and proposed federal laws and regulations. If the commission finds something unconstitutional, state and local governments would have the right to resist federal law with its own mandate.
But the bill does not nullify federal laws and does not prohibit agents from doing their job, said Kathi Seay, Simpson's chief of staff. She said the bill says that in the process of doing their jobs, federal employees cannot inappropriately touch an individual without probable cause.
And Heather Fazio, legislative director for Texans for Accountable Government, a political action committee that seeks to give Texans more control over government, said it's not like TSA's pat-downs are effective at stopping terrorists. Fazio recommended expanding more inexpensive measures such as metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs. "Even just one innocent person being violated isn’t acceptable," she said.
Casanova, with the TSA, said the agency is currently testing a new type of scanner that would produce a genderless image of an individual. If the person sets off the alarms, the advanced scanners will target the area of the body where an unusual item is detected, mitigating the necessity for full-body pat-downs. That eliminates concerns because the pat-downs will be more targeted, Casanova said. The agency is awaiting congressional approval of the 2012 federal budget before it rolls out the new models in airports nationwide, he said.
[Editor's Note: This post has been updated with a correction. An earlier version contained incorrect information about the number of prohibited items TSA agents discovered during checkpoint screenings.]