When you go to the airport, unless you are not flying, you cannot avoid Transportation Security Administration officers. They carry badges, search your property and give orders as you go through one of their check points. Indeed, they are unavoidable if you want to fly anywhere in the United States. They are a form of federal agent or police, so a common question is whether they can arrest you.
TSA officer powers
TSA officers are generally, not law enforcement officers, even though they appear to function as such. They are only empowered to screen passengers and check baggage and cargo. This means that they can search you and any bags you want to take on the plane.
Does that mean they can arrest me if they find something illegal?
No. For frequent flyers, you will notice that there is usually a police officer present at many TSA security checkpoints. That is because, while they are authorized to detain you, if you violate the law, they cannot arrest you. They must call law enforcement officers, like airport police or local police, to arrest flyers.
Can my stuff be randomly searched?
Yes. Even if a TSA officer is not alerted to anything by a metal detector or internal scans, they are empowered to search your bags, even if it is a random selection. Of course, that random selection cannot be based on your perceived political beliefs, religion, gender, ethnicity, race or national origin.
What if I am randomly selected, and I am wearing obvious religious garb?
Before going through the Detroit, Michigan, TSA checkpoint, you have the right to wear your religious clothing, and you cannot be asked to remove it. However, if an alarm goes off, TSA can request additional screenings. During this additional screening, they can choose to either do a pat-down of you and your religious clothing or ask you to remove it. However, it is your right to have this pat down performed in a secluded area by a TSA agent of your gender.
For head coverings, you can refuse their pat down and state you want to pat down your own religious head covering. You will be taken aside, possibly to a private area, and the TSA officer will supervise your pat down. Then the TSA will test your hands for chemical residue. If you pass, generally, you will be allowed onto your flight.
What about child travelers?
You have two options for your Detroit and Troy, Michigan, children: an airport scan or a pat-down search. However, your child could be randomly screened as well. However, for your kids who are under 13, they can keep their shoes, jackets and headwear on during that screening.