A pat-down search is an additional form of passenger screening performed as part of an airport security screening procedure.  If you attempt to enter an airport terminal, you may be required to submit to a pat-down search if you set off a metal detector, or if you are selected for additional screening.  It is important to note that the Federal Aviation Administration does not allow race or national origin to be used in determining who receives additional screening.  See Airport Security Measures: Privacy and Profiling.

In a pat-down search, a transportation security officer (TSO) uses his or her hands to feel for objects on your person or clothing.  All pat-downs should be done by an officer of the same gender as the passenger.  If this is not possible, supplemental procedures may be used to ensure that the screening is done in an appropriate manner.  

Before any such search begins, the officer is required to explain their actions.  A passenger may request that a pat-down be done in private.  New guidelines have expanded what may be done in a pat-down search.  A TSO may feel non-sensitive areas with the front of their hands.  These areas include the back, abdomen, arm, from shoulder to wrist, and the legs, from mid-thigh to ankle.  When searching sensitive areas such as the upper torso or groin, the TSO must use the back of their hand.  When searching a female passenger’s chest, the TSO may feel the outer perimeter of the chest, including above and underneath the breasts.  Due to complaints from female passengers, the TSA now trains TSOs to only feel in-between a female’s breasts if she sets off a hand-held metal detector in that area.

While pat-down searches allow TSOs to physically touch your body, there are very specific guidelines and boundaries that they must follow, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) states that TSO’s are rigorously trained to maintain the highest levels of professionalism. 

When Does a Pat-Down Become Inappropriate?

A pat-down becomes inappropriate whenever the TSA’s guidelines are not followed.  These type of violations may constitute sexual assault.  An inappropriate search might include:

  • A search performed by an officer of the opposite sex
  • Failing to wear gloves
  • Feeling in-between a woman’s breasts without her first setting off a hand-held metal detector in that area
  • Feeling sensitive areas with anything except the back of the hand
  • Any excessive squeezing or groping of sensitive areas
  • Requiring a passenger to expose private or sensitive areas of the body
  • Making comments that are meant to embarrass or belittle the passenger
  • Any other touching, comment, or procedure that is inappropriate or sexual in nature

What You Should Do if You Are Inappropriately Searched

The TSA will investigate all reports of inappropriate conduct.  If  you feel that you have been subjected to an inappropriate pat-down search the TSA recommends that you contact a screening supervisor immediatly.  You may also obtain a feedback form at any checkpoint.  By taking these steps, your complaint becomes documented.  Documentation of the incident will be useful later if you decide to take legal action against the airport, individual officer, or TSA.  Your next step should be to contact an attorney.

How Can an Attorney Help Me if I Have Been Inappropriately Searched?

An attorney can help you determine if you have been inappropriately searched or touched.  Your attorney can advise you of your rights and possible courses of action should you decide to press charges, or file a lawsuit.