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Lawsuit accuses TSA of unreasonable airport detention in St. Louis

Thursday, June 18, 2009 | 6:51 p.m. CDT; updated 9:01 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 18, 2009

ST. LOUIS — A lawsuit filed Thursday against the Transportation Security Administration alleges a Ron Paul supporter was unreasonably detained at the St. Louis airport because he was carrying about $4,700 in cash.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of Steven Bierfeldt, director of development for the Campaign for Liberty, an organization that grew out of Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign.

The organization had hosted an event in St. Louis that included the sale of tickets, T-shirts, stickers and other materials and Bierfeldt said he was carrying the cash proceeds in a metal box when he was detained at Lambert Airport for about 30 minutes on March 29.

The lawsuit does not seek money but asks the court to declare the TSA's actions unconstitutional and to prohibit the agency from similar searches when there is no evidence aircraft are endangered.

"It's obviously important that the safety of flights be ensured," Bierfeldt said in a telephone interview. "But subjecting innocent travelers like me who are doing nothing wrong — I think it diverts TSA away from its core mission of safeguarding air travel."

TSA spokesman Greg Soule said the agency would not comment on pending litigation.

Bierfeldt said he refused to answer when a TSA official asked what was in the box. Another TSA official arrived, and Bierfeldt was taken into a separate room where he used a phone in his jacket pocket to record the officials' questioning.

An audio clip provided by the ACLU includes repeated questions from a TSA official about why Bierfeldt was carrying so much money, and his repeated refusal to answer. On one occasion, the questioner swears and asks, "Is there any reason you're not answering questions?"

Bierfeldt answers, "Am I legally required to answer the question?"

Soule said while there is no limit to the amount of cash a person can travel with domestically, travelers must cooperate with the TSA screening process.

"Cooperation may involve answering questions about their property," Soule said. "A passenger who refuses to answer questions may be referred to appropriate authorities for further inquiry."

Bierfeldt's attorney, Ben Wizner, said the lawsuit does not challenge TSA's authority to search and detain those suspected of taking weapons, explosives or other dangerous objects onto planes.

"That's the whole purpose of airport searches," Wizner said. "These are not, however, open-ended criminal searches."


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