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I recently discovered that the TSA will pull you aside and inform you that they have to give you a full pat down for failing to empty everything out of your pants pockets before going through the scanner. I had to go through this procedure because I had failed to remove two folded up paper towels from my pants pocket. I often use a paper towel as a substitute for a handkerchief.

I am wondering if I had refused the pat down and had instructed them to return my belongings because I had decided at that moment to travel to my destination via an alternate means such as via a car or bus, would they still have the authority to pat me down?

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No.

The requirement for air passengers to undergo a security inspection is imposed at 49 CFR 1540.107(a). This imposes the security screening as a condition of entering the sterile area of the airport and of boarding an aircraft:

(a) No individual may enter a sterile area or board an aircraft without submitting to the screening and inspection of his or her person and accessible property in accordance with the procedures being applied to control access to that area or aircraft under this subchapter.

A statutory basis for this requirement may be found in 49 USC 44902(a)(1), which prohibits airlines from carrying a passenger who has withheld consent to such a search:

(a) Mandatory Refusal.—The Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration shall prescribe regulations requiring an air carrier, intrastate air carrier, or foreign air carrier to refuse to transport—
(1) a passenger who does not consent to a search under section 44901(a) of this title establishing whether the passenger is carrying unlawfully a dangerous weapon, explosive, or other destructive substance; or
(2) ...

None of this authorizes the TSA to continue screening a passenger who is no longer planning to enter the sterile area.

  • Wow, how have the smugglers and hijackers not realized this? All they need to do if they're stopped is to say "No thanks" and try their luck another day! – Luck Sep 5 at 17:53
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    @Luck 3 things: 1, TSA screening has nothing to do with smuggling; TSA screeners are not law enforcement officers. 2, the screening is supposed to detect weapons whether or not there is a patdown, so repeated attempts are not likely to be successful. 3, if other factors lead a TSA screener to suspect that the traveler is committing or about to commit a crime, they can detain the traveler and summon law enforcement officers. – phoog Sep 5 at 18:13
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Yes.

The TSA has jurisdiction over the security of the traveling public both inside and connecting to the United States. This means that 1) they have a right and duty to ensure the safety of the bus/alternate means of transport you just decided to take, and 2) to ensure the continued safety of the airport in which you are standing. A pat down is an appropriate response to ensure these things.

BUT

They will likely not pat you down. People have refused pat-downs in the past, and it has resulted in their being barred from the secure area of the airport. Since you want to leave anyway, the TSA officer will likely just send you on your way, and screen the next person. You do leave yourself open to an $11,000 fine if you do this, but the TSA usually doesn't pursue these penalties, provided you leave peacefully and don't cause them to evacuate the airport due to a security breach.

TL;DR: They have the right to pat you down, but probably won't.

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    A TSA security screening in an airport is required for admission to the secure area of the airport. If someone announces an intention not to enter the secure area, the TSA does not have authority to detain that person for screening simply because the person has also spoken about getting on a bus or other means of transportation. – phoog Sep 4 at 19:01
  • Do you see any argument that the person has acted suspiciously and there is probably cause to make more inquiry? I would worry that they will get in a different line and try to come in again. – George White Sep 5 at 1:30
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    @phoog, I tend to believe that if a TSA agent could articulate a reason why the passenger might pose a threat, they could detain, (similar to the doctrine for police officers), but SOP seems to be just shutting down the airport and evacuating everyone. – GridAlien Sep 6 at 11:36
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    @GeorgeWhite whether the person has acted suspiciously depends on facts that haven't been specified here. Changing one's mind about taking a flight could be motivated by any of a number of reasons. In this case, it would depend on how much information the TSA has about the contents of the pockets. GridAlien, the passenger can't pose a threat to the flight or to the secure area if the passenger is not going to enter the secure area. If the passenger is reasonably suspected of posing a more immediate threat then the passenger is arrestable, but TSA has to summon law enforcement in that case. – phoog Sep 6 at 14:00

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