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Why Are Plainclothes Border Agents Questioning Domestic Travelers at Detroit’s Airport?

Why Are Plainclothes Border Agents Questioning Domestic Travelers at Detroit’s Airport?
Jeff Edwards

The FlyerTalk Forum is a pretty big place, so when a particularly good piece of FlyerTalk comes across our desks, we put it on the front page for regular Reports From the Forum. Want to read more? Check out the Reports From the Forum tag, or head to the forum yourself to see what the FlyerTalk is about.


This week, we stumbled upon an intriguing, potentially concerning series of incidents in the Checkpoints and Border Policy Debate forum. In a thread titled CBP Screening Passengers in Jetway on Domestic Flight, FlyerTalker RastaPasta writes, “I’m currently on a flight from [Detroit] DTW > [Los Angeles] LAX on Delta. Just like last time I took this same flight two months ago, there were plainclothes [Customs and Border Patrol] CBP agents in the jetway pulling random passengers over for questioning…

“Last time they pulled the guy in front of me (if they picked me I was gonna joke about finally getting my global entry interview) but this time I was picked and asked quite a few questions like I just came back in the country.”

RastaPasta goes on to write that, after displaying CBP badges, the agents asked to see travel documents, then asked a number of familiar questions: “Why are you traveling to Los Angeles? What was the purpose of your trip in Detroit? Where in the Detroit area did you stay while you were here? How long have you been in Detroit for? Do you have any narcotics/contraband including medical marijuana, vapes, dabs, edibles, shatter, etc etc (I swear he listed every kind of weed – maybe he knew I was rasta) How much cash, financial instruments, yada yada do you have on your person?”

“It was a bit much for a domestic flight,” RastaPasta added. “Have never really seen this before, anyone know what is the deal?”

And, as it turns out, while this experience is uncommon for domestic flights, it’s not uncommon at Detroit Airport. FlyerTalker chrisl137 reported that “I’ve been stopped in the jetway a few times on flights departing DTW, and it’s the only place it’s ever happened. The person wasn’t uniformed and identified as some security contractor or other.

“They never asked any drug questions, though, and I think both times were before recreational weed was approved in either state. I don’t think they ever showed an actual federal ID- it’s annoying enough (since you lose overhead space) that next time I’m going to ask to see a PIV-II card.”

FlyerTalker  HkCaGu helpfully pointed out that DTW falls well within the special 100-mile border-zone, which gives CBP broader authorities. The special border-zone is not carte blanche for the Homeland agency, however.

When CBP officers held passengers on a Delta Air Lines plane arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) until each and every passenger presented identification proving citizenship or immigration status in February of 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took the CBP to court, eventually winning a settlement. As part of that settlement, the agency agreed it would not attempt to detain passengers on domestic flights without suspicion, solely for the purpose of ascertaining their right to be in the country.

“Although CBP has the authority to stop people arriving from abroad to determine that they are admissible to the United States, that authority does not extend to people arriving on domestic flights,” the ACLU said in a statement announcing the terms of the settlement.  “If officers want to check those passengers’ identification documents, they can only do so with the passengers’ consent. And if a passenger does not consent, the officers cannot detain that person, even for a brief period, without reasonable suspicion of a violation of the law.”

The binding settlement still allows CBP agents to detain passengers on domestic flights if they have reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed. And the agreement does not prevent CPB officers from voluntarily asking domestic passengers to answer questions or show identification. Of course, there are no rules preventing fellow passengers from asking each other to answer a few questions or present identification either – just as long as refusing a request is an option.

FlyerTalk reached out to Customs and Border Protection about the unconfirmed claims that its officers have on at least two occasions randomly interrogated and asked for travel documents from passengers boarding domestic flights at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW). A spokesperson for the agency’s Great Lakes of Field Operations promised to look into the allegations. We will update this story when any additional official comments are made available.

Have you ever been approached or questioned by CBP officials when boarding or disembarking from a U.S. domestic flight? Why do the oddest things always seem to happen at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW)? Why in the world would a frequent flyer ever take a Greyhound bus from Bakersfield to Las Vegas? The Flyertalk community has all these answers, along with a refresher on your rights as a passenger in the Travel Safety and Security forum.

View Comments (20)


  1. Boggie Dog

    October 4, 2019 at 9:34 am

    10 to 1 that the CBP agents never tell a person that answering their questions is voluntary in cases like mentioned in this story. I generally am supportive of police but it seems that support may need to be questioned. When questioned by police do not volunteer anything. Ask if you are being detained. Anything you say not only can be, but will probably be, used to prosecute you.

  2. strickerj

    October 4, 2019 at 9:40 am

    Any idea if this is happening at other airports? I can’t think of any comparable in size or bigger than DTW within 100 miles of the Canadian border, but there are several that close to the Mexican border. (And I would think that’s where they’re more likely to catch drug traffickers anyway.)

  3. OUTraveling

    October 4, 2019 at 9:44 am

    If some government goon tried asking me those questions the only response would be:
    “The 5th Amendment has been found by the US Supreme Court to protect my right to remain silent. Am I being officially detained?

  4. m44

    October 4, 2019 at 9:50 am

    The Police state started under Bush the younger and the Right and fascists love it.
    History teaches that all empires crumble mainly under the weight of oppression. The Reich, USSR, and now is our turn.
    Not everyone saw global worming and not everyone sees the police state rising.

  5. cscasi

    October 4, 2019 at 11:03 am

    I love the comments of our good citizens here. No wonder our country is in the condition it currently is and, sadly, getting worse.

  6. Boggie Dog

    October 4, 2019 at 12:45 pm

    @cscasi Don’t know about others but I am retired military, put my rear on the line for my country. When police or other government actors start going outside the lines is when I have problems. CBP on domestic flights asking questions seems to me to be one of those times. Just like internal checkpoints that do not cross a border. I don’t feel inclined to give up my rights in such situations. If you want to give up yours then go for it.

  7. RandyN

    October 5, 2019 at 12:40 pm

    I would ask if I were being detained, and if not I’d refuse to tell them anything.

    I respect the police, but CBP agents are low-wattage, mouth-breathing goons who always seem bitter that they’re not the ones traveling.

  8. RandyN

    October 5, 2019 at 12:44 pm

    @cscasi Cooperating with harassment by government agents doesn’t make someone a good citizen.

  9. j2simpso

    October 5, 2019 at 5:22 pm

    Technically SEA and ORD would be within 100 miles of Canadian border. I’m unsure about SEA but suspect ORD may be slightly larger than DTW

  10. J S

    October 5, 2019 at 10:23 pm

    @strickerj: The 100-mile jurisdictional rule applies to all borders which includes the coasts. Thus, cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Boston, Houston, etc. are all within the 100 mile zone.

  11. lianluo

    October 5, 2019 at 10:53 pm

    Like Boggie Dog, I too am retired military (30 years) and I didn’t serve those years to see our government/law enforcement act like those of dictatorial countries.

  12. highlanderfil

    October 5, 2019 at 11:58 pm

    How about customs (not passport control, customs, you know, those people who are supposed to take you out behind the shed when they find an apple in your bag) agents asking my then-girlfriend, now-wife whom she was visiting in Detroit while we were dating super long-distance and whether or not her boyfriend had a “domestic” girlfriend? Pretty sure that wasn’t in any of their handbooks…

  13. Centurion

    October 7, 2019 at 4:50 pm

    This happened often on the Pan Am flights from LAX to JFK. I also have seen it happen out of SAN. The CBP guy was disguised as a young back packer hiker type and you never would have guessed he was law enforcement. He stopped a young couple with a young baby in the boarding area and I felt so sorry for the mother with the baby.

  14. chavala

    October 9, 2019 at 7:25 am

    NO WAY would I answer these questions.

  15. infinite97

    October 11, 2019 at 4:41 pm

    I guess I’d be missing my flight if I was ever in that position.

  16. northernlights1

    October 12, 2019 at 7:36 am

    I think its great that CBP are interacting with domestic passengers. About time we have an effective screening program that costs much less than we currently have. Let’s follow behind Israel’s example and how they screen passengers. This type of screening does make us safer and not sure why anyone would be so concerned “about their liberty’s” over safety. I’d rather be safer and surrender those things. Don’t like it? Drive your car…

  17. corbetti

    October 13, 2019 at 3:18 pm

    CBP officer: “What is the purpose of your travel?”

    Me: “Business”

    CBP: “What sort of business?”

    Me: “None of yours. Step aside.”

    One of two outcomes – freedom of a private citizen prevails, or i get a nice christmas bonus in the form of a lawsuit settlement. Either works for me.

  18. Grog

    October 18, 2019 at 2:00 pm

    @corbetti I like it!

  19. rdraper

    October 20, 2019 at 6:26 pm

    @j2simpso – what international border is within 100 miles of ORD?

  20. arcticflier

    December 6, 2019 at 5:15 am

    I love all the keyboard tough guys posting what they would have done.
    Great humor.

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