Traveling by air is not the same as driving. From a criminal defense perspective, the TSA at the airport generally has far greater powers to search your body and property than a police officer would if they pull over your car on a Middlesex County highway. If a TSA agent claims they caught you in possession of fentanyl or another controlled substance, you could be looking at serious federal charges against you.
While your rights are fairly curtailed during air travel, they never go away completely. And if a TSA agent violates those rights, you might be able to get any evidence that they seize thrown out of court.
Your rights during a TSA search
It might seem like the TSA can do whatever it wants to passengers going through security, but this is not true. Unless they obtain a search warrant (which is unlikely in the limited time they have to search you), TSA agents can only conduct two types of searches. The first is called an “administrative exception” search. Courts recognize an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy when a search serves a societal purpose, such as preventing an airplane hijacking, and cannot be fulfilled using less invasive means. But such searches must be balanced against the passenger’s right against overly invasive searches.
Another exception to the warrant requirement in the airport context is pat-downs. If you choose, you can decline the full-body scan and request an “enhanced pat-down” search instead. The agent who conducts the pat-down must be your same gender, and it must take place in a private location. You have the right to have a witness present and to have a law enforcement officer supervise the pat-down. You do not have to take off any of your clothing except for outerwear, and the TSA cannot strip-search you.
Finally, you have the right to refuse the entire TSA screening process. However, you will not be allowed to go to your gate.
Confronting drug charges
If you were arrested at the airport on drug charges, you need to know your rights and what to expect. An experienced criminal defense attorney can go over the case with you so you can make important decisions about how to proceed in your defense.