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Police Encounters in Airports
U.S. Travel Guide
Unknown Author
[Erowid Note: Since airport security was dramatically increased in the U.S. after September 2001, many sections of the following document are no longer accurate.]

Because of the continuing "War on Drugs", it is more important than ever that citizens know their rights during unexpected police encounters while traveling. Innocent people in airports, train stations and bus terminals are being subjected to sometimes abusive tactics and coercive questioning by various police agencies looking for money, drugs and drug couriers.

Here are some simple precautions and advice you can use to protect you, your reputation and your possessions while traveling.

Never carry or offer to take a package or suitcase for someone else unless you know the person well and you personally check the package contents - a friendly offer could cause you to spend many years in PRISON.

Always keep your carry on bag with you or IN YOUR SIGHT. This means take it with you when you eat, use the restroom, or walk around to stretch your legs. It would only take a second for someone to open your bag when you are not watching and place drugs or other contraband inside. It may be impossible for you to prove the contraband is not yours, and again, you could go to prison. Unattended luggage could also be considered abandoned, more on this later.

It is possible that you may be approached and questioned by police or Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers on your trip. Police officers now "hang out" at airports, train stations and bus terminals and "talk to" passengers that fit overly broad and sometimes racist profiles. A Scripps Howard News Service investigation found that 77% of passengers targeted in such settings are minorities.

According to the Supreme Court case FL vs. Bostick police are allowed to approach and speak to citizens. You as a citizen are NOT REQUIRED or obligated to speak to them. You can decline to speak and terminate the conversation AT ANY TIME, including right from the start. You could be asked about your travel plans. You might be asked to produce your drivers license or other ID. You might be asked to produce your travel tickets or other travel documents. You are not REQUIRED to do any of this and can refuse. In a consensual encounter, you can walk away at any time. The police CANNOT use your choice against you. Anything you say WILL BE USED AGAINST YOU even though you have not been informed of your (Miranda) rights. Sometimes just talking to these police can increase their interest in you and may cause them to delay you. Police officers often tape record these encounters with citizens and will use the tape later as evidence in court against you.

You might be asked if you would voluntarily consent to a physical search or "dog sniff" of your baggage. You have every right to decline these requests. Even though you may have absolutely nothing to hide, like most people, you may not want strangers rooting through your private possessions. Never lie and say that your bag does not belong to you. Police officers may think it is abandoned property and will open and search it without anyone's consent or a legally obtained warrant. This is another good reason why you should never to leave your bag unattended, it may be considered abandoned and be subject to a questionable search.

If you CHOOSE to consent to a search, ANYTHING FOUND may be used against you. If you happen to have any cash, it may be seized. The US Congress is now drafting legislation to prevent further abuses of innocent citizens that have had their money taken from them, but are never even charged with any criminal activity.

If you CHOOSE to submit to a dog sniff of your possessions, a positive indication by the dog will result in the seizure of your baggage for a search warrant. You may also be arrested. If your bags are seized and do not contain any drugs or contraband, they and you will be promptly released to go on to your destination. If you are arrested and you have no drugs, you may have legal recourse for being falsely arrested.

Police sometimes will make comments like "If you don't have anything to hide, why won't you let us look? ", or "If you let us look in your bag, you can be on your way", attempting to pressure you into a consent to search or dog sniff your possessions. Innocent people in the United States do not have to allow the police to look in their baggage, or explain the reasons for refusing. Without a reasonable suspicion that you are doing something wrong, you can only be detained for a very brief period.

Protection from unreasonable searches and seizures is a fundamental 4th Amendment right under our system of justice and just as any right, you must verbally assert your rights so that you will be protected. Remember if you tell the police its all right to search your belongings, they do not have to comply with these constitutional requirements. If the police have enough legally justifiable reasons (called PROBABLE CAUSE) to look in your bag, a judge may have to agree and authorize a search warrant to allow them to look.

In any police encounter, remain calm, polite and don't get into any kind of physical confrontation. Do not allow yourself to be intimidated or frightened. Generally, all police officers are required to cordially show their badge and supply their name when asked. You might ask to see the officer's badge and get all names FIRST THING. If you feel badgered or threatened in any way, or the officer refuses to show the badge and supply their name, refuse to say anything else. As soon as you can, write down the time, the location and the best description you can of all the officers involved and file a complaint for misconduct. You may also want to get the advice of an attorney.

To avoid any problems with your checked luggage, place carton sealing tape around the entire bag, placed so it goes around the bag at least once and covers over the keyhole or keyholes. Write your name on the tape a couple of times with a permanent marker. By securing the bag with a seal, you will know if anyone has tampered with your baggage. When you arrive at your destination, if the luggage and tape is not EXACTLY as you left it, complain to the carrier and CALL THE POLICE.

You are encouraged to copy and distribute this sheet to friends, co-workers and anyone that you know that travels in the United States. Our goal is to assure each member of the public is knowledgeable of their rights while traveling lawfully in this country.

I hope this guide is of assistance. It has been proofread by some nationally respected lawyers, so I believe it to be accurate. Check with your lawyer for specific legal advice. I make no warranty, express or implied for the information presented. I shall not be liable in any way for anything that could, might or even did happen if you choose to stand up for your own Constitutional Rights. Fee