A New York woman who valeted her car at Greater Rochester International Airport recently returned to find a notice on her car informing her that it had been searched without her consent. Furious, she got in touch with a local TV station, and the story went viral. TSA quickly put out a statement saying that its agents don't search cars—but searches can be included in a TSA-approved security plan. Mother Jones has found that not only does TSA approve searches of the trunks and interior of unattended cars in an undefined perimeter that's considered dangerously close to the airport—like a car left with valet parking—but if a valet attendant finds illegal drugs instead of bombs, they will call the police. Privacy experts say these searches could be a violation of a person's Fourth Amendment rights.
"We search every car, we open the trunk and take a look around," says Saour Merwan, a keymaster at the valet service at San Diego International Airport. "We were told by airport authority to do that, since about two years ago. [We] keep an eye out for something suspicious, like wires and cables. The airport has security regulations and we have to follow them." Merwan says the service doesn't inform anyone that they're checking out the inside of the vehicles, and when asked what he'd do if he found illegal drugs, he says, "Of course we'd call the police."
"This is exactly what the Fourth Amendment was designed to say the government can't do, generally search everything without suspicion," says Fred H. Cate, a professor at the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University. "At the same time, the Supreme Court has made an exception to searching items that you've voluntarily given to someone else—like a car. It's a crazy argument, but that's not bothered the courts before."
As David Castelveter, a spokesman for TSA explains, each airport in the United States is required to come up with a TSA-approved plan to deal with security risks. That includes "unattended vehicles parked curbside at the terminal." Approved measures to deal with that risk can include "searches of cars queued for curbside valet parking." (Not all airports have valet services, but those that do tend to leave the cars in lots close to the airport.) Mother Jones asked Castelveter whether the definition of "curbside" can include any parking lot close to the airport—including those that may contain locked, non-valet cars—but he said TSA looks at each airport security plan on a "case-by-case basis." Obviously, valet cars are easier to search than other vehicles, as the valet company has the keys.
"If TSA is made aware that evidence of illegal activity is discovered incidental to a search for explosives, that information will be relayed to law enforcement," Castelveter adds.