What Are My Rights at Airports and Borders?

Are you traveling from Florida anytime soon? Will you be at the Palm Beach International Airport? Do you know what your rights are? It’s important to know your rights so that you can exercise them if necessary. Find out the answers to some frequently asked questions about airport and border rights below.

The American Civil Liberties Union provided the following information about this topic:

REMEMBER: It is illegal for law enforcement officers to perform any stops, searches, detentions, or removals based solely on your race, national origin, religion, sex, or ethnicity. However, Customs and Border Protection officials are allowed to stop you based upon your citizenship or travel itinerary at the border and then search all of your bags.

Question: What types of officers could I encounter at an airport or U.S. border?

Answer: You are most likely to encounter customs agents, immigration officers, and Transportation and Safety Administration (TSA) officers.

Question: If I am entering the U.S. with valid travel papers, can law enforcement officers stop and search me?

Answer: Yes. Customs officers have the right to stop, detain, and search any person or item. However, they cannot select you to be searched based upon your race, gender, religious, or ethnic background. If you are a non-citizen, you should carry your green card or other valid immigration-status documents at all times.

Question: Can law enforcement officers ask me questions about my immigration status?

Answer: Yes. At airports and borders, law enforcement officers are allowed to determine whether you have the right to enter or return to the United States.

Question: If I am selected for a longer interview when I am coming into the United States, what can I do?

Answer: If you are a U.S. citizen, you have the right to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you are not a U.S. citizen, you generally do not have the right to the presence of an attorney when you have arrived at an airport or another port of entry and an immigration officer is determining whether you will be admitted. However, you do have the right to an attorney if the questions relate to anything other than your immigration status. You can ask an officer if he or she will allow you to answer extended questioning at a later time, but your request may be denied. If you are not a U.S. citizen and are afraid that you will be persecuted or tortured if sent back to your home country, tell the officer that and that you want asylum in the United States.

Question: Can law enforcement officers search my laptop files?

Answer: This issue is rather contested right now. Generally, law enforcement officers are allowed to search such files and make copies of information contained in those files. However, if such a search does occur, you should write down the name, badge number, and agency of the person who conducted the search. You should also file a complaint with that agency.

Question: Can I or my bags be searched even after going through a metal detector which shows that I am not carrying a weapon?

Answer: Yes. Even if the initial screening of you and your bags reveals nothing suspicious, the screeners who are on duty have the authority to conduct a further search.

Question: What if I wear a religious head covering and I am selected by airport security officials for additional screening?

Answer: You have the right to wear religious head coverings. You should assert your right to wear your religious head covering if asked to remove it. The current policy relating to the removal of religious head coverings, such as a turban or hijab, is that if an alarm goes off when you walk through the metal detector the TSA officer may then use a hand-wand to determine if the thing that set off the alarm is located inside your head covering. If the alarm is coming from your head-covering area, the TSA officer may want to pat-down your covering or ask you to remove it. You have the right to request that this pat-down or removal occur in a private area. If no alarm goes off when you go through the metal detector, the TSA officer may nevertheless decide that additional screening is required for non-metallic items. Additional screening may not be based upon your race, gender, religion, national origin, or ancestry. The TSA officer will ask you if he or she can pat-down your religious head covering. If you do not want the officer to do that, you must refuse and say that you would prefer to pat-down your own head covering. You will then be taken aside, and a TSA officer will supervise you as you pat-down your head covering. After the pat-down, the TSA officer will rub your hands with a small cotton cloth and place it in a machine to test for chemical residue. If you pass that test, you should be allowed to board your flight.

Question: What if I am selected for a strip search?

Answer: A strip search at the border is not a routine search and must be supported by “reasonable suspicion.” Such a search must be done in a private area.

Question: If I am on an airplane, can an airline employee question me or ask me to get off the plane?

Answer: The pilot of an airplane has the right to refuse to fly a passenger if he or she believes that the passenger poses a threat to the safety of the flight. The pilot’s decision must be reasonable and based upon his individualized observations of you, not simply stereotypes.

Question: What do I do if I am questioned by law enforcement officers every time I travel by airplane and come to believe that I am on a “no-fly” list?

Answer: If you believe that you have been put on a no-fly list by mistake, you should contact the Transportation Security Administration and file an inquiry using the Traveler Redress Inquiry Process. If you think there may be a legitimate reason for your having been placed on such a list, you should contact an attorney.

Question: If I believe that airport or border agents singled me out because of my race, ethnicity, or religion, or if I believe that I was mistreated in some way, what information should I record during and after the incident?

Answer: It is important to record the details of the incident while they are still fresh in your mind. You should note such things as the airline, the flight number, the names and identification numbers of the individuals involved, as well as the improper manner in which you were treated.

If you still have questions or are unsure if you have been treated unfairly at an airport or border, call me Ron Chapman at (561) 832-4348 or you can visit my West Palm Beach Law Office online. I am a defense attorney and I can defend your rights. Schedule your free consultation today so that we can review your case.

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