A California woman claims she was sexually assaulted during a public body search at a security checkpoint in the Asheville airport, at least in part for the sexual gratification of the TSA employee involved.
The allegation surfaces in a new lawsuit in federal court of western North Carolina as the country’s airports gird up for weeks of heavy holiday travel, closing out a year of escalating tensions in the skies between passengers and airline and government employees.
Most of the headlines have been dominated by reports of increasingly unruly and occasionally violent travelers.
But the legal complaint filed this week on behalf of the passenger, a Los Angeles woman traveling through the Asheville airport in June 2019, focuses on the security procedures of the Transportation Security Administration, an offshoot of the Department of Homeland Security that handles screenings for all sorts of transportation networks, most notably airports.
Mark Howell, a TSA spokesman for the Carolinas and four other states, said in an email Thursday that the agency does not comment on pending court cases.
The woman is named in her lawsuit. The Observer generally does not identify possible victims of sexual abuse.
Jonathan Corbett, the accuser’s Hollywood-based attorney who has sued TSA over complaints of intrusive searches, told the Observer that his client’s Asheville ordeal “is experienced by thousands of travelers” every year. The victims rarely report the TSA misconduct, he says, out of fear of being bounced off their flights, put on no-fly lists or even arrested.
A search at TSA checkpoint
On June 27, 2019, the California woman had a ticket and boarding pass for an afternoon flight out of Asheville Regional Airport to Los Angeles when she was directed to stand before a body scanner at the TSA checkpoint.
For most travelers, that’s the last step before they’re cleared for their flights. Not this time. A TSA agent, identified in the complaint as “Officer Robinson,” told the Californian she would have to undergo a groin search. Rather than being taken somewhere else for privacy, the woman was to be searched in public at the checkpoint as other passengers streamed by, according to the lawsuit.
The woman asked if the search would involve the touching of her genitals, to which she would not consent, according to her complaint.
Robinson told the woman that her search would require no intimate touching — which the lawsuit claims was an intentional misstatement to get the traveler’s OK for the search.
Under TSA policy for groin searches, agents may briefly slide the side or back of their hands near or across the genitals of men or women.
Robinson, according to the complaint, did more. First, she ordered the woman repeatedly to spread her legs in an “abnormally wide manner,” which the lawsuit said was intended to “humiliate, dominate and control (the traveler), and to provide greater access (for Robinson) to fondle (the woman’s) genitals.”
The agent, while commenting on the length of the shorts the woman was wearing, slid the palm of her hands — not the back or side — inside the shorts and in direct contact with the edge and surface of the passenger’s genitals, which the complaint describes as a violation of agency policy.
The woman flinched.
“If you resist, I will do this again,” Robinson replied. (The lawsuit claims that TSA agents are not allowed to threaten or perform “punitive” searches.)
Nothing illegal was found, the lawsuit claims.
‘Garden-variety TSA abuse’?
The treatment of passengers by government agencies has been the source of multiple legal complaints.
In August, a Raleigh mother sued the agency claiming it violated the Constitution and its own policies when agents strip searched the woman’s 15-year-old transgender child in 2019 after a false positive on a security scanner.
During the same month the Los Angeles traveler said she was assaulted in Asheville, a Nevada woman reported a strikingly similar encounter with TSA officers at a checkpoint in the Las Vegas airport, according to her subsequent lawsuit. The case remains pending.
Meanwhile, a 51-year-old grandmother from Las Vegas sued TSA in August, claiming she was strip-searched by agency officers in the Tulsa, Okla., airport on Mother’s Day before her flight home after her artificial hip triggered a screening alarm. A trial has not been scheduled. As in the Las Vegas case, the accuser is represented by Corbett.
In a statement tied to Tulsa case, TSA said it “does not conduct strip searches and is committed to ensuring the security of travelers while treating passengers of all ages with dignity and respect.”
That said, four years ago, and after examining thousands of TSA internal documents, the ACLU released a report claiming that an agency program to target suspicious behavior among travelers led to racial and religious profiling of travelers.
The Los Angeles woman had sued over her treatment at the Asheville airport before, but the case had been thrown out of federal courts in the Western District of North Carolina on a technicality.
In an interview with the Observer, Corbett described his client’s encounter in North Carolina as “your garden-variety TSA abuse … that I think a lot of people take and TSA gets away with all the time.”
“But a government actor abusing her power right there on an (airport) video, well, that’s something that’s pretty disturbing.”
Have a complaint against TSA?
TSA has a website for travelers to file complaints, including possible violations of civil rights and liberties, at www.tsa.gov/contact-forms.