Constitutional Law,  Ninth Circuit,  Search & Seizure

The Reasonableness of Airport Screening: Consent, 9/11, and Terrorism

Here’s an interesting Fourth Amendment case from the Ninth Circuit today.  In United States v. Aukai, case no. 04-10226 (August 10, 2007), an en banc panel of the Ninth holds that the administrative search at airport screening, including enhanced secondary screening, is reasonable with or without consent once the person attempts to access the secure area of the airport, even if he says he no longer wishes to board a plane.

Aukai, after passing through the metal detector and having his personal effects screened without event as part of his entry to the secure area of the airport, was subjected to secondary screening because he had no ID.  This screening eventually turned up a glass pipe for smoking methamphetamine. He was arrested, and the search incident to arrest turned up several bags of meth.

The wrinkle: during the secondary screening, Aukai told the Transportation Security Administration officers that he no longer wished to board a plane, but the search continued.

The court finds the search is a constitutional administrative search even tough it continued past the time Aukai said he no longer wished to board the plane.  The court finds that passengers subject themselves to search as soon as they try to access the secure area of the airport.

The majority opinion invokes 9/11 and the terrorism threat to argue that if passengers could force cessation of the search, terrorists could probe for security weaknesses by revoking their consent just before discovery or have multiple opportunities to get through security.

Three judges write a concurring opinion saying that the majority should not have relied specifically on the terrorist threat.  They argue that the terrorism discussion is irrelevant and will only provide ammunition for future defendants to challenge the continuing validity of the “solid” holding once the terror threat subsides.

At California Appellate Report, Professor Martin explains why he thinks the case “is worth reading wholly apart from the merits. ”

Decision of the Day’s coverage is written from the perspective of someone who also blogged the original panel decision and the decision to hear the case en banc.  Rather interesting to read the posts in sequence.  The last includes an interesting observation about the authorship of the panel and en banc opinions.

Ninth Circuit Blog  writes, “and so the Constitution keeps on turning.”