Why Is It Legal to Search Bags Without a Warrant?

Don’t the luggage searches at the airport violate the Constitution?

Adam Freedman
February 1, 2010

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I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about the legality of searches conducted by police and airport screeners.  For example, Brett writes in to ask whether being stopped at a police checkpoint constitutes an illegal search. Another reader, Xin, asks whether a TSA (Transportation Security Administration) search of one’s luggage at the airport would violate the Constitution. And Daniel from New York City writes to complain about that city’s policy of searching the bags of randomly selected subway riders. “Am I mistaken,” he writes, “or does the Fourth Amendment still protect a person in the subway?”

Why Is It Legal to Search Bags Without a Warrant?

These are great questions. And Daniel, you’re not mistaken, the Fourth Amendment does apply to people on the subway generally – but random security searches have been upheld as exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s requirements. In a minute, I’ll discuss the reasons why these searches are considered lawful and whether you can refuse to be searched.

The Fourth Amendment Usually Requires a Warrant

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects the right of the people to be secure against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”  Generally speaking, that means that neither federal nor state officials can search you, your clothing, your bags, your house, your car--and so on--unless they have a search warrant supported by “probable cause.”

Most of us consider that to be a very good thing. After all, who wants the FBI barging into their house unannounced?  Not that they don’t do a great job, but I’m told they make an awful mess and never use coasters.

Why Are Airport Searches Legal?

But wait. Let’s say you’re at the airport ready to board a flight. Sure, the security lines are long, but don’t you want everyone to go through the metal detector?