Defendants Settle With Student Arrested for Possessing Arabic Flashcards

I’m trying to keep these posts a little shorter on average, which would mean more posts. So let’s see if I can do that here.

As you may recall, although it’s been a while, Nicholas George was detained at the Philadelphia airport in 2009 after TSA agents freaked out at the sight of flashcards with Arabic words written on them. See TSA Detains Possible Terrorist Armed With Flashcards” (Feb. 24, 2010). Since George is a U.S. citizen as his passport showed, the question was simple:  Was this a student trying to learn Arabic, or a domestic terrorist who wanted to be sure he remembered how to say “bomb” in Arabic on this plane in the United States for whatever reason he might want to do that? We cannot be too careful!

Then this actually happened:

Jane Doe 3 [a TSA supervisor]: You know who did 9/11?

George: Osama bin Laden.

Jane Doe 3: Do you know what language he spoke?

George: Arabic.

Jane Doe 3: Do you see why these cards are suspicious?

<stares at Jane Doe 3 for a while> Because … I … might be … hoping to run into Osama bin Laden when I get to Pomona?

I’m having trouble keeping this short.

Anyway, George was questioned by the TSA for about an hour, then arrested by a city police officer (TSA agents have no law enforcement authority, remember), handcuffed, and interrogated for another four hours by them. They called the FBI’s Joint Terrorist Task Force (no kidding) and they interrogated him for another half-hour before determining he was not a threat. He missed his plane, of course.

George sued the U.S., the TSA agents, two JTTF agents, the city, and the two city cops involved. In December 2013, the Third Circuit held that the federal agents had qualified immunity, which I find kind of unbelievable. The court admitted this was “at the outer boundary of the Fourth Amendment,” so if you were wondering where that boundary is these days, it’s way out there.  Same for the First Amendment, according to the court.

That appeal only dealt with the individual federal defendants, though.  On Jan. 20, the remaining parties settled. The U.S. government agreed to pay George $25,000, and Philadelphia agreed to repeatedly remind any cops assigned to the airport that just because the TSA calls them does not mean they can or should take the TSA’s word for anything. They must independently have either reasonable suspicion (to detain someone) or probable cause (for an arrest).  For obvious reasons, they should not be listening to Jane Doe 3 et al.

422 words (not counting these). I’ll keep trying.