The short version: Had time to kill at IAH so walked around airport landside only; two TSO’s approached, asked questions and then followed me for over 30 minutes; HPD then detained me for an additional 1.5 hours and confiscated my camera bag and equipment.
On May 20th, I took a relative to IAH and wanted to ensure that her plane departed timely without incident before I left. It didn’t take as long as we planned to get to the airport, checked-in and have her through security, so I had more time to kill than I originally envisioned. So I decided I would check out more of the airport and the changes landside that have been taking place. I walked over to the other security checkpoint in Terminal A and then went downstairs to the interterminal train. My plan was to ride all the way to Terminal E, walk to D, then take the train to C, then B and back to the garage.
Act I – TSA
I made it to Terminal E and ended up near the checkpoint but away from everyone and any flow of traffic. I stayed for some time watching the happenings. I took a few pictures, but didn’t realize until later that both of the TSO’s who were to approach me were in a picture. So that is TSO1 standing on the left and TSO2 standing on the right.
What I did notice was TSO1 begin using his cell phone. After he finished, he and TSO2 approached and we all said hello. I asked TSO1 if he was a BDO and he said, “What?” So I asked again to which he responded, “What’s a BDO?”, acting as if he didn’t know what I was talking about. In my estimation they lost all credibility and trustworthiness at this point. Later one of the HPD officers informed me that the TSO said I was using the term describing him (i.e. BDO), which made me suspicious. That confirmed my suspicions about TSO1; he understood what my inquiry was. What made this incongruous was CBS Evening News had a story about SPOT and BDO’s on the evening before.
TSO1 asked if I had identification to which I said yes. He then asked if he could see it to which I said no. (I do wonder what he would have done with it if I had handed it over.) I decided that answering any further questions would not be productive. TSO1 asked other questions including wanting to know what I was doing there. I did engage in conversation and twice I asked if I was interfering with the screening process to which TSO2 said no and also said there was nothing illegal about taking pictures.
Because there have been issues of identifying TSO’s in the past, I took a picture of the TSO1. When he realized that I may have done this, he said he didn’t want his picture taken. I told him that it was perfectly fine to do so in this public space. As even TSO eyecue
has stated, “there is no expectation to privacy in the airport.” He then informed me that my picture would be taken by him, which I said was fine. So here is the picture I took (I don’t know if he actually shot one of me):
After that, TSO1 decided it was time to go back on his phone and the interaction with me ceased. Since TSO’s have no right to detain and neither asked me to stay there, after a bit with no conversation, I went down the escalator and walked through the tunnel to Terminal D. When I was almost there, I glanced behind me and noticed that both TSO’s were following me. So I went up the escalator and towards one end of Terminal D and then went back towards the other end. When I turned around, I saw both of them on their phones:
I then went down the escalator and waited to take the underground inter-terminal train to Terminal C. When it arrived, I took a seat in one of the cars and TSO1 went on an adjacent car. TSO2 hesitated about which car to get on, but seeing how the train was about to depart, hopped in the car I was in. Here is a picture of TSO2 on the phone in the car with me:
During the whole time I was being followed, I didn’t ever try to lose the TSO’s. For example, I could have either jumped on the train at the last minute or got on and then jump off as the doors closed. And of course I did notice others taking pictures, but none were being tailed by TSO’s.
I went up the escalator in Terminal C, walked around and sat down near the entrance. I took another picture of TSO1 on his phone to document that I had now been followed to Terminal C.
I also returned a call. After a bit, I walked away at which time HPD1 stopped me near the Terminal C elevators. From the time when TSO1 and TSO2 approached me until HPD detained me was over 30 minutes.
Perhaps this quote from Stephen Fienberg, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, sums up my TSO encounter, “TSA is doing a number of things in the area of behavior detection and I personally think that some of them are shams."
Act II- HPD
Scene 1 -The Detention
HPD1 asked for my ID and I inquired if I was legally required to do so. He said yes. I asked if this was a stop and identify state and eventually he said yes (which is incorrect). I tried to hand him my card, but he insisted on state issued ID. He also said I had to legally provide him with my SSN. Towards the end of my detention, HPD2 was on the phone with the DA’s office and relayed to me that it was illegal to file a false police report. This was supposedly the basis for the requirement to produce identification. What this had to do with anything is questionable. I still don’t understand that non sequitur.
The questioning then began about what I was doing and why I was at the airport. I demurred to their requests for some time, but eventually inferred my detention was going to continue without answers. Who was I seeing off, what was her name, her relationship to me, her airline, her flight number, her destination, the departure time of her flight, where my car was parked. Each of my simple answers begat more questions. One question in this litany was the middle name of the passenger I was seeing off. I said I didn’t recall, but was still asked over and over the same question and the officer acted incredulous that I wouldn’t remember it. I finally asked one officer if he knew the middle name of every person he dropped off at the airport, which eventually stopped that line of questioning.
At one point I asked if whether answering the next questions verifying my story would end the questioning. No answer and additional questions followed. Of course, I was asked the same questions over and over again by the same officers and other officers, which I would assume was to see if I kept my “story” straight.
The number of HPD officers at this gathering started at one, escalated quickly and ballooned to six. In addition, several uniformed TSO's and a number of other non-uniformed persons with lanyard ID's were standing nearby. At various times, HPD would confer with them and they would confer among themselves or with others on their communication devices.
HPD1 questioned why I took pictures of the TSO’s and not HPD. So I know who they are if issues develop; they don’t have true name tags, but HPD does, so no need exists to take your picture for that purpose. He hadn’t realized that. To this day, I don’t know the names of the two TSO’s, but I do know the names of HPD1 and HPD2. Since the TSO’s would have been the ones to communicate to HPD that I took pictures of them, I would infer the TSO’s viewed my taking pictures of them as being suspicious.
After some time, they asked what my occupation was. I never volunteered earlier that I was an attorney because I didn’t want to be treated better or worse because of it. That brought out the old adage that I was playing attorney games, but my goal was ensure I was being completely truthful in the answers I provided. HPD2 asked me for my bar card, which I told him I didn’t have. From his tone, I surmised that he thought I should have been carrying it at all times, which of course is not required. He then wanted me to orally provide the number to call it in. I truthfully said that I wasn’t sure I could remember it correctly. Later on he told me he wanted to call it in to make sure I was an attorney since some persons have been known to impersonate attorneys.
When HPD1 wanted to know what my earphones were connected to, I showed him my iPod Nano from my pocket, at which point he asked if I was recording our encounter. I said no, but I do wonder what would have happened if I had been. Later, at least one other officer wanted to see what my earphones were connected to, which at that point was nothing.
HPD1 wanted to search my camera bag, but I didn’t agree. I felt I was being pressured through further questioning as to why I wouldn’t consent and wanting to know if there was anything illegal in the bag. He then had me place the bag on a table. Questioning more or less stopped and I waited and waited with always one officer standing by me and the rest of the throng huddled together or milling around.
All of a sudden, HPD1 came over and decided it was time to do a Terry stop (I don’t know (1) what articulable reasonable suspicion he had to believe that I had a weapon and (2) why only then did he reasonably suspect that I had a weapon and not at any time earlier in the detention). He began by placing my hands behind my back and frisked me several times. But then he went further that what is permitted under Terry and took everything (and I do mean everything) out of my pockets (wallet, keys, iPod, pen and glasses) and set them on the table.
During this search, a canine unit showed up to sniff my bag (which probably was the reason for the delay). After the dog did his thing, I heard the handler say the dog didn’t alert. But that wasn’t good enough, so the handler was ordered to have the dog search again. I didn’t hear the handler say anything this second time, so I asked if the dog now alerted. No one would answer my simple question, but they decided to search my bag anyway without my consent. If they say the dog alerted, then that dog needs a refresher course since there was nothing illegal to be found.
But what they found to be of great interest in the bag was the TSA ID form, “SSI” comment form and local comment card that I carry when I travel. Certain of the HPD officers and the non-uniformed persons were looking over those papers in great detail and making calls. I was informed that if any of those papers were not legal to have, I would be in trouble. Normally, I would have had little concern, but previously a TSO at IAH in a secondary search came across my “SSI” comment form and refused to return it to me. He couldn’t grasp the concept that at best it was only SSI when it was completed. Given that background and the nature of the detention to that point, I was apprehensive that they may not understand the legality of my possessing the form.
Part of the detention was humiliating, such as when I was being frisked. When that occurred, I thought I was going to be arrested, which significantly increased the pucker factor. Other times it was 180°. One traveler came up to the HPD officer then keeping watch over me and asked a security question that he couldn’t or wouldn’t answer, so I gave her a way to take care of her predicament.
After further private discussions among those present, HPD2 wanted to give me an oral warning not to trespass at the airport, but when he found out that I do fly, he said he would be nice and not issue it. He would let me go as long as I proceeded directly to my car and left the airport. However, he was going to keep the camera bag and all of its contents (including the papers). Since they had already searched my bag, I asked if we could compile an inventory. We prepared duplicates and signed each other’s copy, but he would not let me check how many pictures were on my CF card.
When asked how long before I would be able to have my camera bag and equipment returned, I was told they didn’t know. The information from the investigation would have to be submitted and cleared by different agencies, including the FBI and TSA. So I asked if it would be days, weeks or months. Could be any I was informed. Call in a week or so to check the status.
The detention lasted about 90 minutes. At one point I tried to sit down on the nearby table, but was asked to stand back up. So basically the whole time I had to remain standing. Several times throughout this process I asked if I was free to go and always was told no. Looking back, I wonder if they were looking for me to make an incorrect statement (as innocuous as a middle name) in order to have a reason to actually obtain reasonable suspicion, detain me longer, provide probable cause and/or arrest me.
Scene 2 - The Recovery
The following evening HPD2 called and left a message a little before 9:00 p.m. I was not at home at the time, but returned his call before an hour was up. He asked if it would be possible to come to the downtown HPD property room that evening to pick up my bag and equipment, to which I agreed. While traveling downtown, he left another message with another contact phone number since his phone battery had run down from all the calls he had made clearing this incident with the agencies involved. I arrived sometime after 10:30 p.m. and while he and another officer were helpful in trying to expedite the release, the paperwork signoff took longer than expected. So while waiting, we discussed a few different matters, the most interesting to me was that this investigation turned out to be 19 pages long while a recent one involving a perp from Austin who held another at gunpoint (domestic violence), stole her car and credit cards and drove to IAH to catch a flight out where he was caught was only 14 pages.
Act III – IAH TSA Response
I thought I would try to discuss this further with IAH TSA, so I e-mailed a person I had previously corresponded with and offered to meet with him and whomever he deemed appropriate.
To that end I suggested that, “In our meeting I would like for us to discuss what occurred and for all of us to obtain a better understanding of the matter in which I was approached by, asked questions by, followed by and apparently called HPD to make contact with me by two TSO’s, all of which occurred landside outside of the screening checkpoint. What I would suggest that we accomplish in our meeting is for all of us to understand the procedures and rights involved in such an incident, ascertain if proper procedures were followed or, if not, if we can put in place a mechanism to ensure they will be followed in the future, whether that be through training or other reinforcement.”
We had a couple of e-mail exchanges, but in the end I was rebuffed and have not had a reply to my most recent e-mail of July 27th. If this had been adequately resolved, I probably wouldn’t have posted this.
I am disappointed in how this was handled because I mistakenly believed that everyone would play by the rules. I do believe that civil liberties were run roughshod over in this situation. I had some faith in the system, but it appears that when it comes to these matters, everyone shouts 9/11 and hides. The terrorists must be laughing.