Last updated on November 2, 2021

When Are Michigan Airport Searches Legal?

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. In general, this requires police officers, or other government officials, to obtain a warrant prior to conducting a search. However, over the years, courts have carved out several exceptions to the warrant requirement, based on the reasoning that not every search is “unreasonable,” and not everything that would seem to be a search is legally recognized as a search. Whether a search related to a Michigan airport crime is valid can depend on a number of circumstances.

Most airport searches are considered administrative searches, and they are not subject to the warrant requirement. An administrative search is one that is carried out not based on suspicion of any criminal activity but instead based on some regulatory or statutory scheme. For example, the policy that all people crossing into the United States are subject to random search, regardless of any individualized suspicion, is considered an administrative search. This same logic applies to airports because courts have held that an airport is the equivalent of a border crossing. This means that when a TSA agent asks to search a passenger’s bag, they can generally do so without any individualized suspicion that the passenger was engaged in criminal activity.

Not all airport searches are valid. For years, TSA agents could search electronic devices as a part of an administrative search; however, courts have recently held that an officer cannot necessarily search all electronic devices pursuant to an administrative search. Similarly, if an airport search exceeds its permissible scope, the search may be invalid. This is an important point because the regulatory framework that allows for airport searches absent individualized suspicion is based on safety concerns, rather than on a general concern about preventing all illegal activity. Thus, courts have struck down searches that were designed to search for contraband other than weapons and explosives.

Specific types of searches may require individualized suspicion. Typically, this requirement is reserved for more intrusive searches, such as strip searches or prolonged seizures. For example, a border agent may not be able to detain someone suspected of smuggling narcotics long enough for them to empty their bowels unless there is a reasonable suspicion that the person is smuggling drugs.

For the most part, initial airport screenings are quick and last only a few seconds. Typically, these involve walking through one of several types of machines or a pat-down search. However, sometimes a passenger is subjected to secondary screening. Any time that a border patrol agent or TSA officer requests a secondary screening, the passenger has the right to have an attorney present. It is important for passengers to understand their rights while traveling domestically and internationally.

Have You Been Arrested After an Airport Search?

If you have recently been arrested after being searched at the airport, contact one of the dedicated Michigan criminal defense attorneys at Michigan Defense Law. At Michigan Defense Law, we represent clients facing all types of serious charges, including Michigan airport crimes. To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation with an attorney to discuss your case, call 248-451-2200 today.

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