Daniel Rubin: An infuriating search at Philadelphia International Airport

Kathy Parker has complained about an airport search.
Kathy Parker has complained about an airport search.
Posted: August 18, 2010

At what point does an airport search step over the line?

How about when they start going through your checks, and the police call your husband, suspicious you were clearing out the bank account?

That's the complaint leveled by Kathy Parker, a 43-year-old Elkton, Md., woman, who was flying out of Philadelphia International Airport on Aug. 8.

She says she was heading to Charlotte, N.C., for work that Sunday night - she's a business support manager for a large bank - and was selected for a more in-depth search after she passed through the metal detectors at Gate B around 5:15 p.m.

A female Transportation Security Administration officer wanded her and patted her down, she says. Then she was walked over to where other TSA officers were searching her bags.

"Everything in my purse was out, including my wallet and my checkbook. I had two prescriptions in there. One was diet pills. This was embarrassing. A TSA officer said, 'Hey, I've always been curious about these. Do they work?'

"I was just so taken aback, I said, 'Yeah.' "

What happened next, she says, was more than embarrassing. It was infuriating.

That same screener started emptying her wallet. "He was taking out the receipts and looking at them," she said.

"I understand that TSA is tasked with strengthening national security but [it] surely does not need to know what I purchased at Kohl's or Wal-Mart," she wrote in her complaint, which she sent me last week.

She says she asked what he was looking for and he replied, "Razor blades." She wondered, "Wouldn't that have shown up on the metal detector?"

In a side pocket she had tucked a deposit slip and seven checks made out to her and her husband, worth about $8,000.

Her thought: "Oh, my God, this is none of his business."

Two Philadelphia police officers joined at least four TSA officers who had gathered around her. After conferring with the TSA screeners, one of the Philadelphia officers told her he was there because her checks were numbered sequentially, which she says they were not.

"It's an indication you've embezzled these checks," she says the police officer told her. He also told her she appeared nervous. She hadn't before that moment, she says.

She protested when the officer started to walk away with the checks. "That's my money," she remembers saying. The officer's reply? "It's not your money."

At this point she told the officers that she had a good explanation for the checks, but questioned whether she had to tell them.

"The police officer said if you don't tell me, you can tell the D.A."

So she explained that she and her husband had been on vacation, that they'd accumulated some hefty checks, and that she was headed to her bank's headquarters, where she intended to deposit them.

She gave police her husband's cell-phone number - he was at her mother's with their children and missed their call.

Thirty minutes after the police became involved, they decided to let her collect her belongings and board her plane.

"I was shaking," she says. "I was almost in tears."

When she got home, her husband of 20 years, John Parker, a self-employed plastics broker, said the police had called and told him that they'd suspected "a divorce situation" and that Kathy Parker was trying to empty their bank account. He set them straight.

"I was so humiliated," she said.

What happened sounds to me like a violation of a TSA policy that went into effect Sept. 1, after the American Civil Liberties Union sued the agency on behalf of the former campaign treasurer of presidential candidate Ron Paul.

In that case, Steven Bierfeldt was detained after screeners at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport discovered he was carrying about $4,700 in cash. He challenged their request that he explain where his money came from.

The new TSA directive reads: "Screening may not be conducted to detect evidence of crimes unrelated to transportation security." If evidence of a crime is discovered, then TSA agents are instructed to contact the appropriate law enforcement agency.

So just what evidence made them treat Kathy Parker like a criminal?

Lt. Frank Vanore, a Philadelphia police spokesman, said that TSA personnel had called his officers, who found the checks to be "almost sequential." They were "just checking to make sure there was nothing fraudulent," he said. "They were wondering what the story was. The officer got it cleared up."

TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said the reason Parker was selected for in-depth screening was that her actions at the airport had aroused the suspicion of a behavior detection officer, and that she continued to act "as if she feared discovery."

"We need to ascertain whether fear of discovery is due to the fact a person is concealing a threatening item, be it a dangerous weapon or some kind of explosive," Davis said. "If the search is complete, and shows individuals not to be a threat to the aircraft or fellow passengers, they are free to go."

But why call police? Davis said, "Because her behavior escalated."

When Parker first told me her story, she didn't know the initial TSA officer was a behavior specialist. She told me he peppered her with questions about her trip as she knelt to consolidate three bags into two, and suddenly realized that her shirt was revealing too much for her comfort. When the man then volunteered to examine her belongings, she felt "it was just strange."

"When they decided to search me, there was nothing wrong with my behavior," she said. "I was trying to keep a positive demeanor about everything. My behavior didn't escalate. I did ask questions."

Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, called what happened to Parker "preposterous" and a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable searches.

"I think they clearly crossed the line," he said, adding that no one had probable cause to examine her checks.

"None of this makes any sense except as a fishing expedition, which under the U.S. Constitution is not allowed. They can't rummage through her personal life. I'm not surprised this woman is outraged. She should be."


Contact Daniel Rubin

at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.

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