Planes, trains and automobiles: TSA’s ever-expanding jurisdiction

Earlier in June, TSA and Homeland Security officials conducted a similar search at a Des Moines Greyhound station, interviewing passengers and checking identifications.

“It’s just a visible deterrent,” Nico Melendez, a California-based spokesman for the TSA, told The Des Moines Register. “It’s a spot check to make sure that nothing out of the ordinary is going on. Anybody that might consider doing something wrong, you never know when we might be out there.”

But local civil rights activists and eyewitnesses said the officers were targeting Latinos.

In 2009, TSA and Border Patrol officers searched trolley cars in San Diego, resulting in the deportation of 21 people, including three teenagers on their way to school. VIPR searches have also targeted ferries and subways.

Civil liberties groups have lambasted the VIPR program’s random searches. Normally, law enforcement must have “reasonable suspicion or “probable cause” to search a person, but courts carved out an exception for airlines in the 1970s.

Jay Stanley, a policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, warned of the “exception swallowing the rule.”

“Once you start expanding beyond that, what’s the difference between a bus station or a sidewalk where people are lined up at a movie theater — or a sidewalk of any kind?” Stanley said.

Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, said the VIPR searches fell outside the scope of TSA’s mission and the acceptable bounds of the Fourth Amendment.

“It’s clear these searches are just aiming to enforce normal criminal law,” Sanchez said. “Those kind of searches are not exempt from the Fourth Amendment. I just have trouble seeing how this just isn’t an attempt to shoehorn warrantless searches on citizens under the rubric of national security,” Sanchez said.

But if anything, TSA is only looking to expand the scope of its operations.

The agency recently conducted a massive training exercise that covered 5,000 square miles throughout Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also included federal air marshals, canine teams, bomb squads and even Blackhawk helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. The Charleston Gazette reported that more than 300 law enforcement and military personnel participated in a 100-mile sweep through the Ohio Valley.

“We’ll be back,” Milano said after the Tampa bus station search. “We won’t say when we’ll be back. This way the bad guys are on notice we’ll be back.”