(Friday’s Populist Capitalist Blog Post)
I like to think that what is in my possession——in my pocket, in my car, in my house, heck, even what is in my suitcase——is pretty much my business. That old United States of America Fourth Amendment to the Constitution thing about “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects”? That freedom and liberty thing, those individual rights that makes the U.S. different from the rest of the world? That “land of the free” concept we are supposed to be fighting to protect in Iraq? Yeah, that stuff.
I understand the government’s position is that when I embark on a commercial airline they can check me for things that pose an immediate DANGER but that is pretty much it; the courts have upheld it as a particularly limited exception to the Fourth Amendment based upon its very limited scope of the search: only dangerous things in the possession of those about to get on airplanes. Dangerous. Immediate. Nothing else. Very limited exception.
A man named Steve Bierfeldt went through airport security in St. Louis a while back and just happened to have $4,700 in cash in his carry-on bag. Hey, it’s a free country. Or it used to be a free country, as Bierfeldt was about to find out. In addition to his cash, Bierfeldt also had one other thing: the illusion that he was a free man, entitled to his privacy, and not to be submitted to interrogation about legal activities. (The New York Times, November 17, 2009, “A Constitutional Case in a Box of Cash.”)
When Bierfeldt politely declined to explain where he got the money, the powers that be were quick to detain him and attempted to dissuade him of his illusions about his rights. But Bierfeldt was a stubborn man and a quick thinking one; a man in possession of an iPhone and the presence of mind to turn on its recorder.
Politely, Bierfeldt continually asked whether he was legally required to answer the questions being put to him: Where do you work? Where did the money come from? While it took a lawsuit, the assistance of the ACLU, and a judge, the resounding answer is no, Bierfeldt was not required to answer any questions pertaining to a legal activity. It is legal to carry any amount of money in the U.S. of A. (If you are crossing borders, you are required to notify customs of the possession of more than $10,000 in cash, but it is legal to carry any amount of money. This is more a theoretical right than a real one. Expect to be hassled if you declare and to be asked illegal, intrusive questions.)
The TSA officer, prefacing his remarks with an expletive, characterized Bierfeldt’s assertions of his rights as “playing games.” Unfortunately, this is the unspoken attitude behind too many “unofficial” governmental actions. Your rights are more theoretical than real. Assert your rights, and we give you a hard time. Question our authority and you will regret it. Unfortunately, those who abuse the trust granted them, those who improperly “extend” their authority, usually get away with it simply because it is difficult, time consuming, and expensive to protect and enforce individual rights. If it were not for Bierfeldt’s fast thinking and the iPhone recording, the “official” version of events might have been a whitewash.
Some may think this trivial, that Bierfeldt was simply being intransigent. Perhaps. I am very fond of my personal liberties, of my privacy, of my freedom. I see Bierfeldt as a brave foot soldier in the ongoing struggle against government intrusion in our lives.
One of the early flags of the American Revolution (and of the United States Marines) was of a coiled snake with the slogan “Don’t Tread On Me.” In his own way, Steve Bierfeldt fought for our freedom. I salute him. To me, he is a hero.
“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” — Benjamin Franklin