Airport Detentions, Arrests of Ordinary Citizens Increase Since 9-11

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There has been a flurry of incidents in the news media over the past few years relating to detentions and arrests at airports. Ordinary citizens are being surprised by the stringent rule enforcement, and they must be prepared to avoid situations leading to airport arrest.

disorderly conduct at an airport.

Past News Releases


There has been a flurry of incidents in the news media over the past few years relating to detentions and arrests at airports. High-profile airport detainees include people from all walks of life, including a congressman as well as a rap music artist. Earlier this month, according to an article written by Vic Ryckaert in the Indianapolis Star, a 19-year-old high school student was arrested for carrying a pellet gun and wearing body armor at the Indianapolis International Airport. The student was arrested for "disorderly conduct at an airport." These cases lead us to ask -- why are travelers typically being detained or arrested at local airports these days?

Twelve-plus years working in government law enforcement and prosecution agencies in Los Angeles and elsewhere in California have shown that six situations generally stand out as the primary causes for detention or arrest at the airport.

1. Drugs at the Airport- Despite the increased airport law enforcement efforts since September 11th, it never ceases to amaze that in local southern California airports, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) seizure of illicit drugs continues to virtually be an everyday occurrence. Travelers are well aware that they will be closely inspected when entering the airport, yet some still attempt to carry drugs through security checkpoints. These drug investigations typically develop when TSA screeners detect controlled substances on travelers or in their carry-on luggage during the passenger screening process. Marijuana is a common local airport drug seized; rarely does a day go by in the local Burbank Superior Court that an airport Marijuana case is not on the court's calendar. Other common airport drug cases involve Methamphetamine, Cocaine, unlawful possession of medication without a prescription, Ecstasy/MDMA, and unlawful drug paraphernalia such as pipes and syringes.

"Borrowed pants" was the most creative explanation this former prosecutor turned criminal defense attorney ever heard given by a traveler to rationalize his drug possession to TSA screeners. Many times, though, travelers simply admit to the violation.    

2. Weapons at the Airport- These cases tend to be the most interesting. One man's "conversation piece" is another man's weapon. Unfortunately for many travelers, though, the "law of the land" takes priority, and travelers can find themselves in hot water. It is not uncommon for someone to travel with an item that they consider harmless, but that generates concern by airport officials. Over the years, this Los Angeles criminal defense attorney has seen cases where people attempted to board airplanes with items such as brass knuckles, throwing stars, and batons. Surprisingly, a number of these travelers had plausible explanations for why they were in possession of the items (i.e., souvenirs, good luck charms, etc.), and were genuinely embarrassed and shocked at the realization that it was considered a violation of law to attempt to board an airplane with these items.

3. Prohibited Items at the Airport- The California Penal Code recently was amended to prohibit items in airports which would not necessarily be illegal in other settings, such as pellet guns and certain kinds of razors. These types of cases tend to be situations where someone goes to the airport with a carry-on bag they neglected to thoroughly search prior to leaving for the airport. As a result, a few stray bullets or a knife from a previous hunting trip may be found at the bottom of the bag. Nonetheless, law enforcement reacts to possession of these items at the airport as a serious event.

4. False Report of Explosive- These cases typically occur when someone has a lapse of good judgment, and makes an inappropriate comment, giving airport officials the impression that there may be an explosive device at one of the terminals. Many times, the airport officials are fairly certain that the threats are implausible, but taking no chances, extraordinary efforts are expended to make this determination. The signs in the airport indicating that even jokes about explosives could send someone to jail are very true. These types of offenses typically land suspected violators in jail with extremely high bail.

5. Disturbing the Peace- These are situations that often start off at a ticket counter, where a traveler is notified that neither he nor his luggage will be flying on the scheduled flight for some reason. Because of the frustrations involved, people oftentimes become emotional, drawing law enforcement attention to themselves. Because the airport is a unique situation with numerous safety concerns, law enforcement generally gives people less opportunity to "vent." Sometimes, people refuse to walk away from a situation when the opportunity presents itself, creating a situation where law enforcement determines it is best to remove that person from that environment. Many "law-abiding" citizens have found out a bit too late that speaking your mind at the airport can have its disadvantages.

6. Traffic Violations- Many people have experienced the inconvenience of driving in circles at the airport while waiting to pick someone up, because they are prohibited from stopping unless they are actually "loading or unloading." For those people who choose to ignore the parking protocol, these violations have a tendency to escalate. The problem often starts where police tell the driver of a car that they are being cited for a parking violation, and the driver decides to drive away, thinking that this will end the problem. Driving away actually has the opposite effect, often causing airport police to converge on the driver for fleeing the scene. Something as simple as a parking violation can turn into a criminal arrest in a moment's time.

Fortunately, for persons charged with a criminal violation at a local airport in California, many of these cases are referred for prosecution in state courts, where punishments tend to be more moderate, unlike the counterpart federal courts, where punishments generally are quite severe.

Overall, two basic concepts seem to account for the majority of arrests in our airports, today:

1. Ignorance of a law or fact- If travelers made themselves more aware about the contents of their luggage, as well as the local, state, and federal laws, and TSA guidelines, they likely would have a better overall traveling experience.

2. A lapse of better judgment- Travelers must understand that because of the unique security concerns at the airport, they should use their best judgment in deciding what to bring to the airport, keep a calm disposition while at the airport, and be aware that there can be severe consequences for conduct deemed to be "inappropriate."


Gregory Caplan

633 W. 5th St. 28th floor

Los Angeles, CA 90071



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