Appeals Court Hands Immunity To TSA Agents Who Forced Man To Delete His Recording Of Them

from the sure-it's-a-violation,-but-we're-not-going-to-offer-a-remedy dept

Yeah, this is not great. This is yet more case law basically saying don’t bother suing federal agents because, unless they’ve very specifically done the same thing other federal agents have been held accountable for, they’re just going to walk away from lawsuits.

The Supreme Court’s 1971 Bivens decision may have created a cause of action for citizens whose rights have been violated, but every year since has seen repeated narrowing of an already narrow decision. It doesn’t matter whether a federal officer filled you full of bullet holes from across the US/Mexico border or, less horrifyingly in this case, made you stop recording a patdown of your loved ones and forced you delete the recording. Either way, the government wins and more precedent is established taking each subsequent constitutional violation by a federal agent further and further away from a judicial remedy.

In 2019, Dustin Dyer, his husband, and their children were attempting to board a plane at a Virginia airport. Dyer and their kids went through. His husband did not. TSA agents detained him to perform a pat down supposedly related to the infant formula he was carrying which TSA agents could not open.

Dyer stood about 10 feet away from the pat down and began recording. TSA agent Natalie Staton noticed he was recording and asked him to stop, claiming this passive recording from 10 feet away somehow “impeded” the other agent’s ability to “do his job.” Dyer reasonably asked for clarification of this assertion by Staton. This was ignored as Staton went and grabbed her supervisor, Shirrellia Smith.

Dyer asked Smith if he could continue recording. Smith said no. Dyer stopped recording. Smith then ordered Dyer to delete the recording while Staton shoulder-surfed to ensure the ordered deletion took place.

Dyer sued. He reasonably claimed this was a violation of his First and Fourth Amendment rights by the TSA agents.

He won. Or rather, the TSA agents weren’t granted immunity on his Bivens claims by the circuit court. The 2021 decision [PDF] said several important things. First, it recognized a right to record public employees — a right that has yet to be recognized at the appellate level with a prejudicial decision.

It went another crucial step further: it said the alleged First and Fourth Amendment violations could be addressed under Bivens. This was brand new, as higher level courts (including the Supreme Court) have yet to extend the Bivens decision to cover First Amendment violations. But, as the court saw it, the violation of Dyer’s First Amendment rights was so “crystal clear,” these federal agents could not avail themselves of qualified immunity.

Furthermore, it said that even if the TSA has some legitimate national security directives to address that may curtail constitutional rights, this isn’t one of them. The TSA can still perform its important national security work while people record from a safe distance away. And allowing these officers to be sued does nothing to deter the TSA and its employees from continuing to do this (allegedly) important work.

Allowing damages in this case would not hamper TSA’s efficacy; permitting individuals to record, from a distance, TSA agents performing their duties does not limit TSA agents’ ability to screen passengers. Indeed, TSA policy allows individuals to record if they do not interfere with the screening process or record sensitive information.

Well, that’s all over now. The findings of the lower court have been swept away entirely by the Appeals Court, which says none of this is right. It sides (as it has to) with the Supreme Court’s extremely limited interpretation of plausible Bivens actions (i.e., heads, the government wins; tails, the plaintiff loses)

Everything good about the lower court’s decision no longer matters. The TSA agents get a free pass exactly for the reasons the lower court said they shouldn’t. (via Short Circuit)

First, the court [PDF] (unbelievably) claims that the correct remedy for rights violations by TSA agents is the TSA’s complaint box (the Traveler’s Redress Inquiry Program [TRIP]) rather than the federal court system. And if it isn’t, well… take it up with your local Congress rep, I guess.

[T]he question is not whether TRIP maps neatly onto Appellee’s claim. The question is whether Congress has acted or intends to act. And in this context, Congress has acted by establishing TRIP.

While TRIP may not squarely address complaints by an individual similarly situated to Appellee, that silence does not give this court license to usurp Congress’s authority in an area where Congress has previously legislated. That is particularly so because Congress has limited judicial review of TSA decisions and refrained from providing any financial remedy for passengers against TSA employees. For these reasons, we hold that Congress, not the judiciary, is better equipped to provide a remedy here.

The same thing goes for the other part: that recording agents does not interfere with the TSA’s national security directives. Here, the court doubles down on bad precedent and deference to a branch of the government that has rarely, if ever, felt like making the TSA better or more accountable to US citizens.

While we have never addressed a Bivens claim against TSA agents, the Third Circuit has declined to extend a Bivens remedy based upon TSA’s role in national security. Vanderklok, 868 F.3d at 189. In Vanderklok, the Third Circuit held, “the role of the TSA in securing public safety is so significant that we ought not create a damages remedy in this context. The dangers associated with aircraft security are real and of high consequence.” We agree. And although Appellee claims he did not pose a national security risk, it is not our task to ask “whether Bivens relief is appropriate in light of the balance of circumstances in th[is] ‘particular case.’” Egbert, 142 S. Ct. at 1805. To avoid “frustrat[ing] Congress’ policymaking role,” we instead ask whether Congress is better suited than the courts to conduct that balancing, id. at 1803, 1805.

Sure, ask. Ask away. Is Congress “better suited” to create a form of remedy for rights violations by federal employees? Possibly. But it never will because [bangs Fourth Circuit’s head repeatedly against the bench] CONGRESS. IS. COMPOSED. ENTIRELY. OF. FEDERAL. EMPLOYEES.

And that’s not the most ridiculous part of this decision that converts real rights violations into rhetorical questions for the sole sake of giving federal employees a free pass. The Fourth Circuit follows all of this pointless deference and refusal to act as a check and/or balance by claiming, with an apparently straight face, that allowing TSA agents to be sued for violating First Amendment rights would threaten the security of the nation.

As the Supreme Court has recognized, “[n]ational-security policy is the prerogative of Congress and the President,” and to impose damages or liability is likely to “caus[e] an official to second-guess difficult but necessary decisions concerning national-security policy.” Thus, creating a cause of action against TSA agents could “increase the probability that a TSA agent would hesitate in making split-second decisions about suspicious passengers” or disruptions at security checkpoints. The nature and gravity of these risks, and whether they are outweighed by countervailing interests in judicial relief for passengers, make such a situation ill-suited to judicial determination

There it is: the third branch of the government says let the other two handle it, deferring to branches who have changed almost nothing about remedies for federal rights violations in the 50+ years since the Bivens decision. Sure, we should ask for legislation from the bench. But we should also expect them to realize rights violations when they see them and be extremely hesitant to allow government employees to walk away from the damage they’ve done before a jury can take a look at the facts.

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Comments on “Appeals Court Hands Immunity To TSA Agents Who Forced Man To Delete His Recording Of Them”

Court has a hole in its argument through which one might drive a passing galaxy.

“…the role of the TSA in securing public safety is so significant…”

Citation. Fucking. Needed.

— Anonymous

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9 Comments
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That One Guy (profile) says:

Appeals Court: You have no rights, merely privileges we just revoked.

Ah the glaring corruption of reverse rulings, where one or more judges decide on the outcome they want from the start and then work backwards to find excuses to justify it.

‘Your rights might have been violated however you’re not allowed to sue because it’s congress’ job to put limits in place, limits which would be meaningless without a way to force the government to pay attention via lawsuits which we just said aren’t allowed(twice), leaving you utterly screwed even if they had meticulously laid out why this particular act was not allowed.’

I’m actually somewhat surprised that they said the quiet part out loud by admitting that they hold that federal agents(or at the very least the TSA) are completely shielded from lawsuits, usually judges are a little more subtle with their blatant corruption and/or cowardice.

Anonymous Coward says:

The rights that our Constitution presumes to preserve for us are gradually being eaten away by the courts. Our government is slowly coming to resemble the very government our ancestors rebelled against to create the United States.

Anonymous Coward says:

The first mistake: conflating TSA with law enforcement officers, and thus cooperating to delete the footage.

What are you going to do? Stop me from getting on the plane because I filmed you? Call a police officer to (checks playbook) violate my first amendment rights by either forcing me to delete the footage or arresting me?

bluegrassgeek (profile) says:

Re: Uh, yes?

What are you going to do? Stop me from getting on the plane because I filmed you?

Yes, that’s exactly what they’ll do. Delay you long enough you miss your flight, then blame it on you. They know that most folks can’t afford to miss their flight & will comply, so that’s precisely why they do this.

DV Henkel-Wallace (profile) says:

Had a cop defend me on this once

Flying through SJC there is (or was — haven’t used that airport in a while) a cop on duty. I had reason to film a TSA agent, who objected to me pulling out my phone and videoing him (including a close up of his badge).

He told me to stop, claiming it was forbidden, and I said no thanks. Fortunately, instead of trying to grab my phone, he called over a cop who was sitting and looking board behind a counter and told him about my terrible behavior. The cop told him it was fine for me to do so and that he should leave me alone about it.

The best part is he told me to stop by his counter after I had my bag back and he would give me a complaint form. I definitly stopped by but decided not to press my luck and did not submit the form

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Court has a hole in its argument through which one might drive a passing galaxy.

“…the role of the TSA in securing public safety is so significant…”

Citation. Fucking. Needed.

Anonymous Coward says:

next step......sue congress!

First, the court [PDF] (unbelievably) claims that the correct remedy for rights violations by TSA agents is the TSA’s complaint box (the Traveler’s Redress Inquiry Program [TRIP]) rather than the federal court system. And if it isn’t, well… take it up with your local Congress rep, I guess.

when checks and balances fail! take it to the next level! file a claim against congress for failing to provide a proper remedy for redress of grievances!

Rekrul says:

Maybe the people passing through the TSA checkpoint should start demanding that all their cameras be turned off and the recordings deleted because they’re impeding the travelers’ ability to comply with the TSA demands.

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