A federal appeals court gave a victory to travelers who object to invasive screenings at U.S. airport security checkpoints, saying screeners are not absolutely immune from lawsuits accusing them of abusive conduct. In a 9-4 decision, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said Transportation Security Administration screeners were “investigative or law enforcement officers” for purposes of searching passengers, waiving the government’s usual immunity from lawsuits, Reuters reports. Judge Thomas Ambro said the “intimate physical nature” of airport screenings brought them within the ambit of law enforcement, allowing travelers to pursue some civil claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act for intentional wrongdoing.
He downplayed concern that the ruling would open the floodgates to litigation, saying that in 2015 fewer than 200 people, out of more than 700 million screened, filed complaints that might trigger the waiver. “The overwhelming majority of [screeners] perform their jobs professionally despite far more grumbling than appreciation,” he wrote. “Their professionalism is commensurate with the seriousness of their role in keeping our skies safe.” Friday’s decision reversed a ruling by a three-judge 3rd Circuit panel. Nadine Pellegrino, a business consultant from Boca Raton, Fl., with her husband sued for false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution over a 2006 incident at Philadelphia International Airport. Pellegrino, then 57, objected to the invasiveness of a random screening prior to her scheduled boarding of a US Airways flight to Florida and was accused of striking a TSA officer. She was jailed for 18 hours and charged with assault, making terroristic threats and other crimes, which she denied. Pellegrino was acquitted in 2008. “If you think you are a victim of intentional misconduct by TSA agents, you can now have your day in court,” said her lawyer, Paul Thompson.