Los Angeles – There has been a flurry of incidents in the news media over the past few years relating to detentions and arrests at airports. High-profile airport detainees include people from all walks of life, including a congressman as well as a rap music artist.
Aside from a number of high publicity cases reported by the media, why are travelers typically being detained or arrested at local airports these days?
Prior to my transition into private practice as a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, I worked in government law enforcement and prosecution agencies for over 12 years. The last six of those years, I worked as a city prosecutor in Burbank, California, where I participated in hundreds of airport offense investigations and prosecutions. Over time I noticed that six situations stood out as the primary causes for detention or arrest at the airport. Some of these situations were related, and some were not. The following is an overview of my analysis.
Drugs at the Airport – Despite the increased airport law enforcement efforts since September 11th, it never ceases to amaze me that in local southern California airports, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) seizure of illicit drugs continues to virtually be an everyday occurrence. Travelers are well aware that they will be closely inspected when entering the airport, yet some still attempt to carry drugs through security checkpoints. These drug investigations typically develop when TSA screeners detect controlled substances on travelers or in their carry-on luggage during the passenger screening process. Marijuana is a common local airport drug seized; rarely does a day go by in the local Burbank Superior Court that an airport Marijuana case is not on the court’s calendar. Other common airport drug cases involve Methamphetamine, Cocaine, unlawful possession of medication without a prescription, Ecstasy/MDMA, and unlawful drug paraphernalia such as pipes and syringes.
“Borrowed pants” was the most creative explanation I ever heard given by a traveler to rationalize his drug possession to TSA screeners. Many times, though, travelers simply admit to the violation.
Weapons at the Airport – These cases tend to be the most interesting. One man’s “conversation piece” is another man’s weapon. Unfortunately for many travelers, though, the “law of the land” takes priority, and travelers can find themselves in hot water. It is not uncommon for someone to travel with an item they consider harmless, but that generates concern by airport officials. Over the years, I have seen cases where people attempted to board airplanes with items such as brass knuckles, throwing stars, and batons. Surprisingly, a number of these travelers had plausible explanations for why they were in possession of the items (i.e., souvenirs, good luck charms, etc.), and were genuinely embarrassed and shocked at the realization that it was considered a violation of law to attempt to board an airplane with these items.
Prohibited Items at the Airport – The California Penal Code recently was amended to prohibit items in airports which would not necessarily be illegal in other settings, such as pellet guns and certain kinds of razors. These types of cases tend to be situations where someone goes to the airport with a carry-on bag they neglected to thoroughly search prior to leaving for the airport. As a result, a few stray bullets or a knife from a previous hunting trip may be found at the bottom of the bag. Nonetheless, law enforcement reacts to possession of these items at the airport as a serious event.
A situation like this happened a few days ago. According to an article written by Vic Ryckaert in the December 4, 2006, Indianapolis Star, a 19-year-old high school student was arrested for carrying a pellet gun and wearing body armor at the Indianapolis International Airport. The student was arrested for “disorderly conduct at an airport.”
False Report of Explosive – These cases typically occur when someone has a lapse of good judgment, and makes an inappropriate comment, giving airport officials the impression that there may be an explosive device at one of the terminals. Many times, the airport officials are fairly certain that the threats are implausible, but taking no chances, extraordinary efforts are expended to make this determination. The signs in the airport indicating that even jokes about explosives could send someone to jail are very true. These types of offenses typically land suspected violators in jail with extremely high bail.
Disturbing the Peace – These are situations that often start off at a ticket counter, where a traveler is notified that neither he nor his luggage will be flying on the scheduled flight for some reason. Because of the frustrations involved, people oftentimes become emotional, drawing attention to themselves by law enforcement. Because the airport is a unique situation with numerous safety concerns, law enforcement generally gives people less opportunity to “vent.” Sometimes, people refuse to walk away from a situation when the opportunity presents itself, creating a situation where law enforcement determines it is best to remove that person from that environment. Many “law-abiding” citizens have found out a bit too late that speaking your mind at the airport can have its disadvantages.