Bad Attitude Punishable?

Banned items in luggage bring TSA fines

When Mojdeh Rohani flew home to Boston after her wedding last fall, security screeners at Baltimore-Washington International Airport found a silver-plated cake serving set in her carry-on bag. She had forgotten that she had the utensils, which were a wedding gift.

Officials allowed her to check the bag and take a later flight. She didn’t think of the incident again — until she got a notice from the Transportation Security Agency fining her $150 for her oversight.

”I wasn’t told I could get fined for this,” Rohani says. ”There was no sign at the airport. I think $150 is a lot of money for something that wasn’t intentional.”

A year ago, the TSA quietly began assessing fines against airline passengers who violate security policies. But it wasn’t until this week that it issued guidelines that specify which of the thousands of passengers who turn up every day with knives, box cutters and other banned items will be fined.

”Attitude” is listed among the ”aggravating factors” that can result in a fine. Other criteria include the type of item, evidence of a passenger’s intent and history of previous violations. Civil penalties now range from $250 to $10,000.

Passengers attempting to carry firearms on board, loaded or unloaded, face the highest civil penalties as well as possible criminal prosecution. Since February 2002, the TSA has seized more than 1,650 guns from airline passengers.

Well, I certainly have no problem fining people trying to smuggle weapons aboard a plane. But utensils from a cake set?

And how on earth can “attitude” be a punishable offense? Surely, the right to have a bad attitude about government employees is among our more fundamental liberties.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    Who, two years ago, would have thought that box cutters would be the weapon of choice?

  2. James Joyner says:


    If the knife in a cake set is such that it could be used as a weapon, I’ve got no real problem with requiring that it be checked, mailed, or whatever the usual procedure is. I just don’t think there ought to be a fine for something like that–clearly an honest mistake.

  3. mark says:

    If only they fined the government employees every time they displayed a bad attitude, we could solve the deficit problem in a year.

  4. jen says:

    Mark, some of us government employees come by our attitudes as a result of having to deal with idiot citizens. 😉

    Case in point: I answer the phones for our office. We often get callers looking for our HQ, which is in Virginia but has a DC phone number. When I try to give them the correct phone number, EVERY SINGLE ONE asks if I’m sure that’s the correct number.

    Who’s the employee here? I think I’m a reliable source for that information, no?

  5. citizen says:

    Sorry jen, but I can’t blame anybody for not having any confidence that he is getting the correct information from a govt. employee. Ever called the IRS or the INS three times with the same question? Count on three different answers. And as a public servant, your job is to deal with all the citizens, idiots included. Since your paycheck is forcibly extracted from the paychecks of every taxpaying citizen, you can’t really reserve the right to refuse service to anyone the way a private business can.

  6. FedKate says:

    Oooh, did you just hit a hot point.

    “Since your paycheck is forcibly extracted from the paychecks of every taxpaying citizen…”

    Huh?? I’m a Federal employee and the last time I looked I was a taxpaying citizen. Yup, just checked my pay statement and I pay Federal, State and city taxes every pay day. I guess that means that I pay my own damned self and you can take a hike. :-Þ

    It’s that “I pay your salary” talk that gives many Federal employees the bad attitude. That goes for State and City employees too. If you look around you’ll notice that everybody pays everybody’s salary. Buy something at the supermarket you pay their salary. The cashier buys something from your business or something related to it and they pay your salary. We’re all part of the same economy.

    By the way, private businesses can’t just choose to serve who they feel like. Anti-dicrimination laws are in place to stop that sort of thing.

  7. Ben Schorr says:

    If there is going to be a fine for such things then it’s important that there be some kind of warning about it. I understand requiring her to check the wedding utensils and I think that was a good requirement. But to fine her for it afterwards smells a little too punative for my tastes.


  8. FedKate, you missed a word. He said, Since your paycheck is forcibly extracted from the paychecks of every taxpaying citizen…

    The cashier at the supermarket only gets part of your money if you choose to give it to the supermarket first.

    And by the way, private businesses mostly can choose who they want to do business with; anti-discrimination laws, as intrusive as they are, only apply to discrimination based on certain characteristics — race, sex, religion, etc. If I run a grocery and I don’t want to sell to any anybody who works for the government, I don’t have to. Or if I don’t want to sell to rude people, I don’t have to.

    As for the issue, it’s ridiculous to fine people especially without prior notice, for innocent mistakes. But even that is far more justifiable than making “attitude” one of the criteria.

  9. TMorgan says:

    Actually, that is such a bad way to think of public employees.

    Yeah, they get paid by tax money. That doesn’t mean you get to treat them badly. They generally get to deal with the most self-righteous, self-entitled people on a daily basis, with sub-par equipment and for less money. Upset anyone, and they go to a local politician who will ride their ass without ever considering who was right, or that the person was mad because the public employee was simply going by the policy /the politician voted for/. Any attempt at a morale boosting event or cutting someone some slack is viewed as a theft from the public.

    As compared to a private company’s public interface, who are paid far more but the money comes from a hidden pool so you never know how much is being “wasted” on employees. How much money in your cable bill is supporting the tech support guy who blames all your connectivity problems on microsoft? How much of your bill is paying for the microsoft tech support guy who will blame all your connectivity issues on the cable company? How much money in your food bill is paying for the companies to lobby for fewer laws protecting food buyers? You have just as little say in how your money is taken from you and spent.

    You are equally as likely to get bad information from the private sector, and far more likely to just be totally stone walled by a “Its just company policy(not to take responsibility)…” response.

    No I’m not a public employee. But I know a bunch. Give anyone a bad attitude, you get poorer service. Duh.

    For the actual article – this is stupid policy. Why on earth would you let a person bring what is considered a weapon on a plane at all? If the item is considered a threat, is the fine going to make the threat go away? If it is safe enough to allow on the plane, why fine at all. “Mr. Atta, I can let you bring that box cutter on the plane, but there will be a $150 dollar fine…”

  10. Amy Phillips says:

    FedKate: Yes, but when I pay the salary of the employees at my local grocery store, if they harass me or fail to help me, I have the option to stop paying their salaries. Not so with government employees.

    That said, I don’t think the above is a reason to be nasty to individual government employees, just as I don’t think that my annoyance with the high price of milk is a good reason to be mean to grocery store employees. While they chose to work in a field where such things are an issue, every job has its issues, and we should all be polite to one another anyway.

    Finally, yes, private businesses can refuse to serve anyone they want, so long as it’s not for one of several specifically delineated reasons. If I own a restaurant, I can refuse to serve a black family for failing to meet my dress code or for causing a disruption, just not for being black. But because the government belongs to all Americans, government employees should not be able to selectively screen out which citizens they want to help or be nice to, even if the citizens are rude or stupid or annoying. You are an employee of all Americans, and as such you must help all Americans, no matter how much they piss you off. I really don’t envy anyone in your job.

  11. TMorgan says:

    Just to bring it full circle – remember that none of this would have been necessary if the private airlines hadn’t fought tooth and nail against government regulations to put solid doors on the cockpits…

  12. James Joyner says:


    I’m pretty sure they’re ALSO confiscating the items or making them be checked or whatever.

    I don’t advocate being rude to public employees. My dad spent most of his career working for government (20+ Army, 10+ DOD civilian) and I’ve worked for the Army and state universities.

    I’m just saying having a bad attitude shouldn’t be a fineable offense–sure as hell absent due process.

  13. Al Maviva says:

    Sounds pretty bad. I’d like to know if the ticket warned about the doubling of fines, however, before I tee off on TSA.

    My parking tickets, for example, warn that if I don’t pay or file a court claim within 30 days, the fine will double. I think it’s crappy, but it’s within the law if it is done correctly.

  14. Al Maviva says:

    Sorry, responding to the whole story there. On the attitude as aggravating factor, I’m not sure if you are aware that Congress legislated away free speech rights in airports a long time ago. Saying the word “bomb” or “terrorist” or “hijacking” can get you arrested. I suppose in that regulatory climate, of reduced liberties (in the name of the compelling interest of safety, natch) that a fine for lipping off to a TSA screener isn’t shocking. Again, shitty, but not illegal. On the other side of the coin, it would be interesting to know whether the bad attitude started before or after the cake knife episode. As per usual, I don’t really trust what I read in the papers, there aren’t enough facts upon which to make a reasoned judgment.

  15. James Joyner says:

    Congress’ ability to legislate against free speech is limited–“Congress shall make no law….” and all that. Saying “bomb” or such is a reasonable enough time, place, and manner restriction in the current environment. But having a bad attitude?!

  16. McGehee says:

    My attitude toward TSA is so bad I’ve avoided flying since Feb. 2002 — and I only flew then because it was a family emergency.

    This year my wife wants to visit Fairbanks — it will have been five years since we moved away — and unfortunately we have to use the airlines to get there.

    Lucky for me they can’t fine me for two and a half solid years of bad attitude. Yet.

  17. SJohn says:

    The fine is indeed ridiculous.

    As for the issue of whether a govt. employee “gets” to be rude or not: If you want a certain level of quality from your govt. employees, you should be prepared to pay for it. You don’t always get lovely helpful shining examples of humanity when you pay the lowest price you can. As the govt. continues to privatize various functions, in fact, you can expect more and more rude behavior, because the companies competing for the contracts are going to keep their pay as low as they possibly can to 1) gain the contracts in the first place, and 2) maximize their profits. In fact, it’s not just the attitude that’s going to suffer, it’s the general level of quality in all such metrics.

    But hey, at least it’s cheap, right? Yeah, right.

  18. James Joyner says:

    I don’t think TSA is contracted out?

  19. SJohn says:

    No, it’s not, actually. I was talking about government functions in general. Nobody had made a point here about TSA themselves being rude (unless you count unexpected fines as rude, and, well, hell, you do have a point there). So I was just addressing the “you get what you pay for” subtext behind comments like “forcibly extracted” and “having the option to stop paying their salaries.”

    This sort of illustrates my point (not really, but pretty close). There’s a Fry’s and a Safeway across the street from each other in my neighborhood. Fry’s has slightly cheaper prices, but significantly snottier clerks and marginally worse meat & produce. So I shop at Safeway, where I have to pay a little more.

    But like I said, that’s not quite the point. Cause the government does pretty much have a monopoly on the services they provide. But, when they start outsourcing their services to the lowest bidder, you can’t expect that the quality is going to be what you want it to be.

    (actually, wasn’t there a big push to privatize TSA after 9/11? I can’t remember the details. Did I hallucinate that?)

  20. James Joyner says:

    Actually, the opposite: It was private before 9/11 and the attacks caused a big uproar demanding that airport security be turned over to a Federal law enforcement agency.

  21. SJohn says:

    Ah! Not quite a hallucination, but close enough for goverment work….

  22. tsa employee says:

    If you want the prohibited item checked, mailed, etc. that means someone (airlines, TSA) will have to pay for it. Where I work, certain airlines stopped giving people the option of sending items because of the cost. As far as the fines being unfair, I would argue that TSA supervisors tend to bend over backwards in favor of the general public, which in my learned opinion makes the skies less secure.

  23. FedKate says:

    Thanks for some gov’t worker support. Too many people don’t like us just because a relative of a relative felt they got treated badly when they didn’t get what they wanted. There are many good gov’t workers. Unfortunately the doofuses tend to get all the press.

    What really bugs me about what happened at the airport is the “bad attitude” fine and the “aggravating factor.” Let’s see, this woman is delayed from her flight and made to take a later flight. Who wouldn’t be at least a bit annoyed at that? The TSA person screwed with someone else’s time then has the gall to complain that this woman didn’t like being delayed. I’ve been accused of having a bad attitude just by sighing a little too heavily so I wouldn’t be surprised if the evidence of her bad attitude was just a heavy sigh at being delayed. The “aggravating factor” in this case seems to be the TSA employee (the doofus gets the press). It’s one thing to be fined for carrying a banned item but it’s just senseless to be fined over something so subjective as attitude. Yeeesh!! (Oops, does that mean I have a bad attitude?)

    As for checking or mailing a prohibited item, it seems that if I don’t pay attention to what I put in my bag then I should pay for the checking/mailing not the TSA. It’s your stuff in your luggage then you pay for it. Seems like there would be a good business in having a stand selling boxes, envelopes and stamps at the airport.

  24. Vic the Appraiser says:

    Sorry, but this is a dumb and dishonest post. “Cake utensil” is a weak euphemism for “really big serrated knife.” My preference, as a frequent air traveler, is that no other passengers wield really big serrated knives, and I have no problem fining the dumb fookers if they try to carry really big serrated knives onto an airplane.

  25. James Joyner says:

    I’m not sure what kind of cake you’re used to, but usually cake utensils are neither large nor serrated. They’re usually little wedge shaped things that, if wielded by a ninja, would still be harmless.

  26. Grumpy says:

    One of the problems with TSA is that they seem to make up the rules as they go along. I fly frequently for business and have been through the security posts at airports all over the world. the ones in the U.S. are clearly the most absurd. The events that stick in my mind is the TSA guy at Wahington Dulles who decided that my cigarette lighter was a dangerous weapon and confiscated it. After clearing security I stopped at one of the kiosks in the concourse and bought another one. Another one once told me that I had to take the strings off my guitar….

    Now they’re telling me I could be fined because one TSA person decided something was dangerous that no other TSA person would??? No wonder I’m developing an attitude….

  27. McGehee says:

    Remind me not to buy a house Vic appraised.

  28. Sky-Ho says:

    Were I a terrorist, the last thing I would want to do is to draw attention to myself.

    The TSA knows this. By extension, they also know that fines/punishment only apply to either non-terrorists or stupid terrorists.

    BTW, after 11 Sep, GWB was _against_ a federal inspection unit, stating that “private enterprise” can handle that what the TSA does now.

    Also, prior to 11 Sep, only the pilots wanted a strengthened cockpit door, airlines and govt employees were against.

    BTW, there are plenty of weapons of opportunity aboard every aircraft, from the obvious, crash ax, to the sublime, the broken wine bottle or pop-top on any aluminum can.

    Confiscating potential weapons from everyone is a failed security policy.

    1) You must categorize each item as a “weapon or not”, easily overcome by anyone willing to think outside the box. As a corollary, one could break an easily recognizable “weapon” into parts for reassembly later.

    2) You then end up removing items from those who could fight the bad dudes.

    3) Taking tools (weapons) from a person with a “evil heart” is inefficient and ineffective.

    As an aside, I have been informed that any “Tom, Dick or Harry”, with a badge (easily found in most any pawn shop) and a letter (?) can board aircraft with a loaded gun. This would include (I have seen) Dept. of Education and Interior (Forest Rangers?). I’m certain they are trained in firing weapons aboard an aircraft.


    and this does not even address the legions of airline workers at airports who do not even pass through security.

  29. McGehee says:

    I recall some talk early in the post-9/11 debate over airline security over the way they do it in Israel: they profile. And apparently it works a lot better than our focus on inanimate objects.

    If there’s ever another hijacking or 9/11-style attack in spite of all the crap we’re putting the flying public through, maybe the PC inhibition against profiling will finally end up on the trash heap where it has always belonged.

  30. --locus says:

    Being one myself, there is a simple reason behind my grumpiness…MISMANAGEMENT. At my level of the federal government, I work alot with the presidential appointees. I’m grumpy because they either ignore the largest problems, or pick the most mundane ones over which to spend their time. Add in the downward pressure to control what’s going on, and nothing ever really gets done, (or at least very little that is truly important).

    They really need the assistance of the career employees to make things happen. Unfortunately, it’s rarely sought. When it is, the output is so tightly controlled common sense often loses to political pressures.

    This administration will (hopefully) prove once and for all that running a government cannot be managed like a business.

    Next time, let’s not elect a failed CEO, but a President.


  31. McClain says:

    The bit about “any Tom, Dick or Harry” bringing guns on planes with just a badge & a letter?
    That’s not true.
    The air marshalls wear plain clothes, though: maybe that’s the source of the confusion.

  32. JohnN says:

    The issue of government employees being overworked, dealing with rude people, isn’t the issue here.

    The person didn’t incure costs on TSA, she checked the baggage and took a later flight. No fine at all was called for. Then, not included in the story above, is that she asked for a hearing and they told her she had to fly from LA to Baltimore for the hearing and threatned to double the fine or worse if she didn’t pay it immediately.

    She isn’t a security threat, we have limited resources and we need to spend our time and energy on real security threats, not nit-picking over crap that has nothing to do with it. How many TSA employees turned out to have criminal records – how about some zero tolerance for that?

    Personally I find most TSA employees to be reasonably good natured (Tucson and KC have the friendliest in my experience) but there work conditions are absurd. Could we finally get some chairs to use to put our shoes back on – just to name one thing.

  33. JohnN says:

    Oh, please go to the TSA web site. It is wonderful.

    The TSA website indicates that while there is a list of acceptable and a list of prohibited items for taking on an aircraft, the screeners are allowed to make up rules on the spot and declare items on the acceptable list illegal. Since they warn you that you can be fined or arrested for bringing illegal items to the security screening area, that means you can be arrested or fined just for them having a bad attitude.

    Safety razors are considered acceptable to carry on the aircraft but not “razor type blades.” You can carry on a toy gun, but not a “realistic replica” of a gun. Realistic replicas of incendiaries are also illegal, as are spillable batteries, unless they are in a wheelchair. Mace is ok, if it comes in a small can with a safety latch. Pool cues are out, but a walking cane is ok.

  34. AKtsa says:

    Ok, Q&A time: Who here has ever been pulled over for speeding? Raise your hand. C’mon, put it up there with mine. Those with your hand up, did you get a ticket or a warning? How did your “attitude” toward the cop that pulled you over shape his decision wether you got one or the other? When you went to court, were there notes on his copy about your attitude that made the judge give the minimum or maximum fine?
    This isn’t something that we made up. The regulations are from the FAA from before TSA was created. Being the new “monolithic gov’t agency here to take your freedom/soul” (sorry about the hype, watched too much CNN last week) TSA makes for an easy target. For further reading, check the web for the announcement and the OTHER aggravating factors that seem to be missing, not just the most inflammatory one.

    BTW: the lady in the story got less than the minimum