Mindless Security, 2002

Swedish exec Peter Tsounis deals in yachts for a living. He wears expensive suits, flies first class, and carries hundreds of dollars in cash as well as twenty credit cards. So he was surprised recently when a cop slapped handcuffs on him and six lawmen surrounded him as he was about to board a plane at Miami International Airport.

Tsounis was carrying a Swiss Army knife with a 1.5-inch blade (and tiny scissors) that he had picked up at a yacht show. Though he had passed through a metal detector twice without incident -- he had missed a flight the night before -- a security guard picked him for a random check as he was about to board a Europe-bound United Airlines flight. After a short interrogation, he went to the slammer.

From his home in Europe, he describes the next day as being "like a trip out of Afghanistan." First the jailers took his tie. Then Tsounis, who speaks English with a slight accent and is five feet seven, spent ten hours in what he describes as a hundred-square-foot holding tank with a bunch of skels, including felons. At one point the toilet backed up and the floor was "covered in shit," he says.

"Perhaps they arrested me because of the stamps in my passport," says Tsounis, who paid his bail that night with $500 in cash and has paid thousands more in legal fees. "I certainly don't have a record, and I had forgotten about the knife. I am enormously offended by the process. I hope this never happens to an American in Europe."

Tsounis is one of more than 50 people pinched at South Florida airports since September 11 for uttering threats or carrying what authorities call "weapons." Among the others: a Uruguayan academic who allegedly made a wisecrack, then spent nine days in jail; a college football star who carried four firecrackers; a veteran Bahamian kayak guide with a couple of kitchen knives in his carryon; and two commercial pilots who allegedly responded rudely to security personnel.

A recent review of dozens of arrest records from the Miami-Dade Police Department, Broward Sheriff's Office, and Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office provided a careful look at airport security collars since the World Trade Center fell. The records revealed randomness, overzealousness, and callousness on the part of authorities perhaps too eager to safeguard the public.

Of course some people deserved to be arrested. Several travelers carried loaded pistols. James Pelle of Brooklyn, six feet tall and two hundred pounds, carried a four-inch knife concealed in his belt through MIA security. When it showed up in the metal detector, he said he didn't know it was there. When asked about it later, he said, "I have no comment." Similarly, electrician Bill Powers tried to sneak a plastic knife onto a plane at Palm Beach International Airport. Lucien Phillyppe of Fort Lauderdale had fifteen knives in his carryon.

Carrying guns or any other weapon through a security checkpoint has long been illegal. Since terrorists hijacked planes using box cutters ten months ago, those laws have been enforced more stringently. The Federal Aviation Administration routinely issues lists of objects that are illegal in secured areas. Rules are posted and sometimes printed on tickets. Pliers and screwdrivers aren't allowed. Nor are "knives including religious, any type except rounded blade butter and plastic cutlery types," according to an FAA list.

Authorities vary in their enforcement. Most security personnel interviewed acknowledged that, generally, if a traveler with scissors, knives, or tools is stopped, the offending implement is simply confiscated and the person is allowed to pass after a warning. But Hugh Graf, a Broward Sheriff's spokesman, says his department arrests everyone who violates the law, whether the act is egregious or unintentional. "If the law is broken at the airport, the deputy gives the suspect a notice [or] he goes to jail," Graf says. "End of story."

Miami-Dade County Police Maj. Mike Hammerschmidt, who's in charge of the airport station, is a little more thoughtful. Everyone's learning, he says, adding that travelers have voluntarily tossed dozens of weapons from their carryon luggage into so-called amnesty boxes. For instance, soon after the disaster, one man removed a medieval ax from his bag before passing through the metal detector. "In the very beginning, there was fear," Hammerschmidt says. "Arrests are up to the officer. The first question is, 'Was there a criminal intent to get this on board for nefarious purposes?'"

Daniel Ivy, a nineteen-year-old sophomore at the University of Florida, surely had no such intent. He had never received even a speeding ticket before security personnel stopped him at a Fort Lauderdale airport checkpoint on May 4. An A student, he had sped home to Hollywood from Gainesville just in time to make an Indianapolis-bound flight. After authorities discovered a four-inch knife (which he says he had forgotten to remove) in his bag, they cuffed him and led him to an interrogation room.

Charged with carrying a concealed weapon, Ivy eventually settled for six months of community service after spending $1500 on his legal defense. That's more than he will earn all summer as a camp counselor in upstate New York. "At the point at which I was sitting there in handcuffs, I felt like shit," Ivy says. "Like an idiot."

Hubbard Jones is also ashamed. For the past fifteen years, he has been leading kayak trips in the Bahamas. On April 13 he and a group were passing through a Fort Lauderdale security gate with fourteen carryon bags. Inside one of them were two Publix kitchen knives. His case is pending. "I'm embarrassed by the whole thing," he comments. "It's personally very upsetting. I'm not telling anyone about it." When it was suggested that it was nothing to be embarrassed about, he shot back: "You were not sitting there in handcuffs."

Most SoFla cases read the same. A person with no criminal record carried a gun or knife through security after forgetting it was in the carryon bag. He or she was stopped, cuffed, and checked by bomb-sniffing dogs. Some were taken to jail. Others weren't. Most of those arrested were charged with carrying concealed weapons, a misdemeanor. Generally prosecutors dropped charges, or the accused settled for community service. Of course, many stops don't generate reports, because travelers are simply warned and released.

From dozens of conversations with lawmen and travelers, it's clear that there isn't a set policy on imprisonment. That should disturb civil libertarians or anyone else who cares about individual rights.

Take the case of Gregory Sulava, one of only about a dozen foreign-born arrestees on the list. A Brooklyn limousine-company owner who was born in Russia and immigrated to the United States as a teenager, he arrived at Miami International Airport in February after traveling to Rio de Janeiro for Carnival.

After landing in Miami for a stopover, he passed through customs and walked toward his gate for the final leg of his trip home. At the security checkpoint, he watched as security personnel turned up a large scissors in the bag of a woman ahead of him. After a brief consultation, the workers confiscated it and let her pass.

Then came Sulava's turn. In his carryon luggage, the Russian, a chain smoker with a slight accent, had a tiny lighter with a one-inch folding knife that he had bought on the street in Brazil for fifty cents. He had passed through security multiple times with it and had stowed it during the flight from Rio to Miami. "This thing couldn't clip your fingernails," he says. "You can bend it with a thumbnail."

Still Sulava was held for five hours in the Miami-Dade County Jail before he raised bail. Then he spent $2500 on legal bills before settling with authorities for ten hours of community service, which he completed at his New York City-area synagogue. "I am six foot four and two hundred twenty pounds, but is that a good reason to arrest me?" he asks. "Or maybe this is just racial profiling because I am a foreigner."

Miami-Dade Police's Hammerschmidt acknowledges that authorities might have "gone overboard" early on, but maintains times have changed. An increasing proportion of offenders are simply given warnings. But officers sometimes decide to charge people who are particularly uncooperative, he says, much like the writing of a traffic ticket. "As time has moved on, we have moved away from charging. But you have people who get indignant, and you have to drive home the point."

The change, if it's actually occurring, is too late for many, responds Richard Hersh, a pilot and lawyer who's representing Tsounis, the Swedish businessman. "I don't have a problem with good security," he says. "I have a problem with mindless security. There needs to be better notice of what's prohibited, and [there ought to be] consistent enforcement."

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Chuck Strouse is the former editor in chief of Miami New Times. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and won dozens of other awards. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and has worked at newspapers including the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.
Contact: Chuck Strouse

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