Disobeying a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Agent

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

In the past decade, going through airport security has become downright unpleasant for most of us. However, threatening, hitting, disobeying, or interfering with an airport screener (a "TSA," or Transportation Security Administration employee) violates federal law and can result in imprisonment and fines. This article explains the law and tells you how to avoid trouble.

For more information on the laws surrounding air travel, see Interfering With a Flight Attendant or Crewmember.

Interfering With a TSA Agent

Federal law prohibits:

  • threatening
  • assaulting (touching in an offensive way)
  • intimidating, or
  • interfering with airport screeners while they are performing screening duties.

The primary duty of a screener is to check passengers and luggage for contraband. Any behavior that is offensive or disruptive and takes officials away from their stations or work could be considered interference.

For example, trying to go back through the metal detector after setting off an alarm or yelling at an officer might be considered interfering with a TSA official.

The TSA can impose civil penalties (fines) for interference; and interference is also a federal crime. If the defendant uses a dangerous weapon, then the crime is punished more severely.

(49 U.S.C. § 46503; 49 C.F.R. § 1540.109.)

Generally, a dangerous weapon is any object that can be used or is used to cause death or serious bodily injury.

Passenger and Luggage Screening

Federal law also requires that all passengers and their luggage(checked or carry-on) be screened before boarding any airplane flight. Screening may include advanced imagining technology (millimeter waves), metal detectors, and pat downs.

Airlines must refuse boarding to anyone who refuses to allow their body or their luggage to be searched for weapons, explosives, or other destructive substances. An airline may also refuse boarding to anyone whom the airline deems to be unsafe.

(49 U.S.C.A. § § 44901, 44902; 49 C.F.R. § 1540.107.)

It is a violation of federal law to enter into the area beyond the security screening without submitting to screening, and the passenger can be fined.

(49 C.F.R. § 1540.107.)

For example, if a person were asked to wait for a pat down and instead left the security screening area, that would probably be a violation of federal law.

What About My Rights?

Your right to privacy. Generally, everyone has the right to be free from unreasonable searches. However, air travel, like driving a car, is a highly regulated activity and so passengers can expect bag searches and pat downs and other behavior that would be considered an invasion of privacy if they occurred outside of an airport.

Your right to free speech. Passengers are permitted to ask questions about the screening process and are free to express their feelings about TSA, so long as they do so in a way that does not interfere with a TSA agent's official duties.

Keeping Calm at Security

Any time you disobey a TSA agent's instructions, you run the risk of violating the law. But, people are not usually prosecuted unless they hit officials or repeatedly ignore, argue with, or disobey them.

To avoid problems in case of a disagreement:

  • If possible, do as you are asked.
  • Do not raise your voice or make any threats.
  • Ask to speak to a supervisor if you're having a problem with a screener
  • Never touch a TSA official.

If you think you are treated unfairly, you can file a complaint with the TSA Office of Civil Rights and Liberties.


Criminal. A criminal conviction for interfering with security screening personnel is punishable by up to ten years in prison and a fine of $250,000. If a dangerous weapon is used, the defendant can be imprisoned for up to life.

(18 U.S.C. § 3571, 49 U.S.C. § 46503.)

Civil. TSA can also impose civil penalties (fines) of up to $10,000. (49 U.S.C.A. § 46301.)

According to TSA's internal guidelines, interfering with a TSA agent is punishable by a fine of $500 to $5,000. Larger fines are imposed if the defendant touches the agent or makes threats.

Entering the secured area without submitting to screening is punishable by a fine of $1,000 to $3,000.

In order to impose a civil penalty, TSA first files a notice of a proposed civil penalty. The passenger can request a hearing, which will be held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). An attorney can represent the passenger. After a hearing, at which both TSA and the passenger can present evidence, the judge reaches a decision. The TSA or the passenger can file an appeal with TSA's Final Decision Maker or, finally, with a Federal Appeals Court.

Getting Legal Advice and Representation

If you are charged with interfering with a TSA agent or if you are fined for failing to follow obey a TSA agent, you should contact an attorney immediately who has experience handling such cases. An attorney will be able to guide you through the civil or criminal legal process, tell you how your case is likely to be treated, and make the best arguments on your behalf. With an attorney's help, you will hopefully be able to obtain the best possible outcome in your case.

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