Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Am I Legally Required To Answer That Question?

Via Twitter, I came across this link, which contains a clip (from Fox News, I think?) of a story about what happened to a guy detained by the TSA at the St. Louis airport. They were suspicious of him because he had $4700 in cash on him. They demanded to know where he got the money.

In response, this man asked repeatedly, "Am I legally required to answer that question?"

He never got a "yes" or a "no"--but was detained, and the TSA guys (he was recording their voices on his phone without their knowledge) threatened to make him answer to the DEA and the FBI.

Watch the whole video, it's about 8 minutes long. I thought the way this guy behaved was awesome--polite, calm, non-confrontational . . . and absolutely unyielding. Yes!

UPDATE: Here's the video:

11 comments:

Burgess Laughlin said...

> "I thought the way this guy behaved was awesome--polite, calm, non-confrontational . . . and absolutely unyielding."

Thank you for this statement. Coincidentally I have been thinking about two paragraphs in The Art of Nonfiction, p. 124. There Ayn Rand very briefly discusses (as a "Don't") the use of overstatements and pejoratives. (She gave as an example the phrase "abysmal bastards," which she had used in a first draft of an essay).

Such statements, in a published work are arbitrary stylistically and emotionalist philosophically, she observes.

She says: "Even if you give reasons for your strong language, understatement is usually more desirable. When you understate something, the reader is aware of what you are saying; his own mind then supplies the rest, which is what you want. But when you overstate something, you deafen the reader. You do not give him time to come to his own conclusion. . . . When you overstate something, you disarm yourself." [Bold added.]

In a disagreement, the one who is "polite, calm, non-confrontational" makes his case more clearly -- especially for observers at the time or a jury months later! -- than the person who threatens, intimidates, insults, or yells.

One of the characteristics of Ayn Rand's heroes that I have admired so much is their dignity. They live an exalted life. They do not hurl insults or scream epithets. They act in a manner reflective of their self-worth and they speak respectfully, that is, they speak in a way that allows another person the mental "space" to listen and think. Whether that other person is rational or not is up to him.

One of my favorite little scenes in Atlas Shrugged is the conflict between Dagny Taggart and the guard outside the torture chamber holding Galt. She was always respectful. She presented her case in the minimalist manner that a rational mind needs to hear. He evaded. She shot him.

There is a principle beneath the writing style and the style of adversarial social interaction, but I haven't yet identified it explicitly. It deserves attention -- in writing and in the other parts of life.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

I saw this shortly after it happened. I also saw a story a few days ago about a Baptist minister in Arizona who was not so respectful. The minister was roughed up some by DHS/Immigration officials. Although he had the right not to give the information, and therefore he should not have been beaten, I think he may have fared better if he had been polite and respectful.

Of course, that requires one to stay in the moment that is, and deal with what is happening, rather than letting fear and anger get the better of us.
It's always easy! Especially for those of us who have ah, volatile nervous systems.

Anthony said...

I have mixed feelings about this. They had no right to detain him (i.e. he should have been free to abandon his flight and leave), but he was behaving suspiciously and I can see why they wanted to ask more questions before letting him through to board the plane.

The federal government shouldn't be conducting these security checkpoints, but someone hired by the airport should. With that in mind, passengers have no *right* to use those airports without the permission of the owner. If airport security wants to stop someone from flying, at most they have a breach of contract lawsuit. If you don't like it, don't fly. The fact that the TSA got formed instead of leaving security up to the airports themselves is the problem, but this incident very well may have happened anyway.

Brian said...

Anthony: Whether or not he would have been allowed to fly under a private, non-TSA system is not the point. If they wanted to kick him off, so be it. But they didn't stop there. They threatened force. They threatened to ruin this guy's life, smear his name, lock him up.

Could such actions have been permitted - free of retaliation - under a private system?

Anthony said...

"If they wanted to kick him off, so be it. But they didn't stop there. They threatened force. They threatened to ruin this guy's life, smear his name, lock him up."

Don't misunderstand me. In my opinion, they kidnapped him. They weren't right.

"Could such actions have been permitted - free of retaliation - under a private system?"

Were they permitted under the current system? Unless Bierfeldt decides to submit a lawsuit to determine that question, we can only speculate.

Did they have any reasonable suspicion that Bierfeldt had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime? I don't think so, so he should have been free to leave. Free to leave the same way he came in, that is.

Rational Jenn said...

I'm not sure he was behaving suspiciously, at least during the portions that were recorded. It's clear the TSA thought he was behaving suspiciously--but I think that calmly asserting one's rights is no grounds for suspicion. At least, it shouldn't be.

Anthony said...

What rights did he assert? Did you listen to the full unedited audio?

Maybe "suspicious" wasn't the right word. But I wouldn't have let him ride on my plane until he answered a few questions (which eventually he answered, and was allowed on).

If a customer of mine "calmly asserted his rights" in the manner that Bierfeldt did, I'd calmly assert my right to refuse service. Go waste someone else's time, kid.

I know, I know, it's the government, not a private business, so it's different. But it shouldn't be the government. Airport security should be run by the airports, just like it was 10 years ago.

Rational Jenn said...

Things would certainly be different under a private system. But it's not a private system. He is not a customer in this scenario; his relationship to the TSA guys asking him questions is not that of a customer but that of a citizen of the USA who is being asked to divulge private information to government officials. So when he is asking about the legality of the line of questioning, he is indirectly asserting his rights. I think viewing this scenario from a customer/business point of view isn't entirely accurate.

At no time in the portion I heard (the clip from the show which is all we have to go on for this discussion) did I hear the guy state he had a right to fly on an airplane. In a private system the airlines and airports would of course define criteria for questioning suspicious passengers and in that case there would be no question of his need to assert his rights, for of course there is no right to the service of a private company.

It's precisely because the interrogators are government officials that rights come into play and why I think he did the exact right thing in an admirable way.

Anthony said...

I don't think you can discuss the situation unless you have heard the full audio tape. The clip from the show is a very small selective portion of the entire incident. You certainly can't say "he did the exact right thing" without having listened to it. Even the full audio tape does not include the part before they pulled him over to the side.

If you listen to the full audio tape, you'll hear that he *was* told "yes", he did have to answer the question. And he wasn't unyielding either - he eventually answers almost all of the questions they were asking.

Yes, the tape shows the TSA and police in a bad light. The FBI guy at the end was the only one who behaved admirably.

Rational Jenn said...

He was unyielding in his insistence that they tell him whether or not he was legally required to answer the questions before he answered the question. This insistence of getting them to say out loud what they were doing is what I was referring to when I called him unyielding. I think that is the exact right thing to do when answering to government officials. I only wish he'd thought to ask for a lawyer to be present.

He said he'd be happy to answer them IF he were legally required to do so, so the fact that he did so does not negate my point. (Although I thought he stated in the news interview that he never did divulge the origin of the cash but I can't listen to it just at the moment.)

I think I can say that insisting that government officials help you understand the law, your rights, and adhering to your rights when you are being detained and questioned is absolutely the right thing to do.

Anthony said...

"He was unyielding in his insistence that they tell him whether or not he was legally required to answer the questions before he answered the question."

Officer Shelton told him that he was legally required to answer the questions near the beginning of the audio, but he didn't do so until near the end of it (and not following an answer to his question, which was only answered once, near the beginning of the audio).

"He said he'd be happy to answer them IF he were legally required to do so, so the fact that he did so does not negate my point."

He said that after Officer Shelton said "yes" to his question and told him "he's required to ask you some questions, and by you being the owner of this box, you're required to answer those questions", but a good 10-15 minutes before he finally admitted where the money came from.

"(Although I thought he stated in the news interview that he never did divulge the origin of the cash but I can't listen to it just at the moment.)"

The FBI agent asked him "so these are campaign contributions for the Ron Paul campaign" and he answered "yes". If he had just said that all along he could have avoided the whole mess. But it was most likely his intention all along to cause the whole fiasco. He says at the end of the audio "that sir, is damn good recording right there".

"I think I can say that insisting that government officials help you understand the law, your rights, and adhering to your rights when you are being detained and questioned is absolutely the right thing to do."

I completely disagree, and in fact I'd say it's exactly the wrong thing to do. If you don't understand the law or your rights, you need someone *on your side* to explain them to you. Police are not on your side. They are trained specifically in the art of getting people to voluntarily give up their rights even when it is not in their best interest to do so.

You were closer to what I'd agree with when you said he should get a lawyer. Explaining the law is the job of a lawyer, not of a police officer. If he didn't know his rights, he should have asked for a lawyer. If he did know his rights (and I suspect he did, since he apparently did not believe Officer Shelton when he was the officer incorrectly informed him that he *was* required to answer the questions), then he should have asserted those rights, not asked about them. He could have even combined the two, and said something to the effect of "I will not answer any of your questions unless I am legally required to do so".

I've dealt with police officers in similar situations, and the simple fact of the matter is that most of them don't understand the law. Getting into a debate with them is usually pointless. Asking them for advice on the law is usually counterproductive.

Of course, this could have been avoided before the police even got involved, if he had just told the TSA that the money was Ron Paul campaign contributions when they asked him in the first place. Yes, he was not legally required to answer that question, but he was required to answer it before getting on the plane.