Summer road hazards your government won’t warn you about

With the frenetic summer travel season just around the corner, here’s a little warning about a road hazard you might not expect: a checkpoint staffed by Transportation Security Administration workers.

The so-called VIPR teams (shorthand for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) are special TSA units that search — and sometimes detain — travelers at bus terminals, railroad stations, subways, truck weigh stations and special events such as NFL games and political conventions.

Peter Ireland, an entrepreneur based in Seattle, contacted me after hearing about VIPR teams in Emeryville, Calif., checking random passengers and luggage.

“This agency is out of control,” he told me. “It’s a cancer in the body politic.”

He’s hardly alone in that assessment, or in the suggestion that VIPR teams are turning America into a de facto police state. But the VIPR teams are on such shaky legal ground, and as you’ll see in the video below, many travelers can and do simply ignore the roadside checkpoints because there’s no firm legal basis for them. (Note: While these aren’t VIPR checkpoints, they operate in a similar way, so I thought they were worth including.)

Annoying and ineffective?

The real problem with the TSA VIPR teams isn’t that they needlessly delay travelers, but that they may be unable to stop a real act of terrorism. Consider the recent “emergency” on a Chicago train, where VIPR agents believed they’d found a dirty nuclear device.

A TV photojournalist who just “happened” to be at the scene captured the whole event, which ended up being a false alarm. Turns out one of the passengers had just wrapped up a medical test, which led to higher isotope readings.

Thanks, VIPR.

By the government’s own reckoning, these teams are useless. The latest Inspector General report questioned the effectiveness of the teams, noting that surface transportation security inspectors are not trained in behavior detection, have no training in passenger screening, are unable to detect explosives, and are not law enforcement authorities.

Ready for your VIPR check?

This upcoming Memorial Day holiday, as you take to the roads and railways with your own family, you may see a VIPR team asking you to pull over and submit to an inspection. I’ll be honest: The activist in me wants to keep driving. But as a practical matter, I pull over, I’m polite to the government employees and I answer all of their question honestly. My family doesn’t want any trouble, and chances are, neither does yours.

But as the inspection station disappears in my rearview mirror, I wonder: When will I say no? When the kids are old enough to deal with Dad getting hauled off and detained? When the TSA agents’ questions get too personal? Maybe when I’m asked to walk through a portable full-body scanner that’s set up along the road?

I think we can all understand having a checkpoint at the border or in front of a military base, but at a random truck weigh station? To check nine-year-old Amtrak passengers as they exit the train in Savannah, Ga.?

Maybe this summer it’s time to say enough is enough.

Should the government disband its VIPR teams?

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Note: Effective June 1, I’m moving my TSA coverage to TSA News, a blog I co-edit. I’m returning to this site’s main mission every Wednesday, with more consumer advocacy coverage.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Bryan Kilian

    No, “You may not search my car absent a warrant.” is not a useful thing to say, because they may search your vehicle without a warrant. There are a number of cases where they can. It’s better to say “I do not consent to searches”. Don’t tell them what they can do, tell them what you do. You can’t control what they do.

  • citizentraveller

    It seems that around the world there is greater surveillance of our travel movements and our everyday lives. Here in Australia motorists are encountering more and more roadside cameras that record licence plate details. Not only are there speed cameras and red light cameras but now cameras to measure average speed between two points on highways. Virtually all toll roads are cash-free with usage monitored by cameras. On top of this, our movements can be monitored whenever we carry a mobile phone. Usage of the Internet is monitored. Purchases by credit card and bank transactions are monitored. The list goes on.

    The confrontations with the TSA and their equivalents in other countries are very visible, obvious, annoying and sometimes demeaning. However, perhaps we should be equally concerned about the threats to our privacy and freedoms posed by the many forms of electronic surveillance, both by government regulators and corporations.

  • EdB

    “probable cause that you have violated some law”

    Even having probable cause would be iffy since they do not have police/arrest power.

  • Daisiemae

    I guess you forgot that John “flounce”d away last week and refuses to return until Lee Anne is banned.

  • Guest

    Ohhhhh….. I missed that. :)

  • Matty B.

    They’re not securing the international border, that’s the problem. In that video they’re well inside the US (30-50 miles inland according to the one worker).

  • cahdot

    put these stupid resources onto the BORDER not our HIGHWAYS???? DAAAAAAAAAAAthe good old government yet again wasting our hard earned taxxxxxxxx $$$$$$

  • Daisiemae

    I’m sure your grandparents would be very proud of you and the way you are pushing back against TSA.

  • mbods

    I just watched the above videos on checkpoint. I can’t remember feeling so disturbed and angry.

  • Daisiemae

    “What would you say to a national ID card with verifiable biometric markers and a change in the federal law that requires every person to produce it when questioned by an authority?”

    Hell, no!

    BTW, Congress is trying to slip this national ID card into the immigration bill they are working on. Everybody who opposes that should contact your critters immediately…for all the good that does.

  • EdB

    Just for clarification, which action made you feel disturbed and angry? The film maker or the agents?

  • EdB

    Put Border Patrol BACK on the border. :)

  • EdB

    Did you notice in one interaction, a cop also backed down, doing nothing to really support the agent other than to spout the same drivel. If there was a legal stand to back up the stop, I would think the cop would have hauled him out of the vehicle and arrested him.

  • frostysnowman

    I did. I think that reinforces the idea that these stops were unnecessary.

  • EdB

    “Border patrol checkpoints are checkpoints within some reasonable distance of the border designed to prevent the illegal entry of people or goods into the US.”

    How is a check point set up on a road that is not a direct access into the US preventing illegal entry of people or goods into the US? By the time they reach the check point, they have already entered. Who knows how long they have already been in the country and where they have been or what they have dropped off. I don’t see how any check point like that could fall under the ruling you mention, but I haven’t read it so don’t know if that situation is specifically covered.

  • EdB

    I agree. Hell no to a national ID card. But in a sense, we already have one with the SSN. I know there are laws in place that are suppose to prevent its use as ID, but it is still used that way.

  • Daisiemae

    This national ID card being proposed will have RFID chip and biometric info and even retinal scans.

    That’s WAAAAAY more invasive than the current SSN.

    And speaking of the SSN, everybody and his dog has access to your SSN. I don’t have any confidence that the government can protect all the sensitive information that this new card will contain. Prying eyes will know all…especially if any money can be made out of it.

  • Daisiemae

    I’m hoping somebody can clear up my confusion on this. If I understand correctly, most of the scenarios in the video involved border patrol (except for the agricultural stop). Was I wrong about that?

    But I thought the borders are a Constitution free zone. I thought that border patrol are law enforcement officers and that they have legal jurisdiction to search your vehicle and your person without reasonable suspicion and without obtaining a warrant. Border patrol has even been known to confiscate laptops, tablets, and smart phones without a warrant as well as perform cavity searches.

    So why did these border patrol agents on the video back down when they were asked for a warrant or asked “Am I being detained? Am I free to go?” If they have the legal authority to search without a warrant, why did they back down?

    I understand that TSA (outside the airport) cannot perform a search without a warrant because they are not LEOs. But I thought that CBP could do that because they are LEOs in a Constitution free zone.

    Anyone who is truly in the know about this, I’d appreciate your thoughts.

  • Andrew F

    That lady “What country are you a citizen of” scares the heck out of me. It’s easy for you guys — just answer “USA” in perfect English, and you’ll be on your way. Me… I’ve never carried my immigration papers with me — they are locked in a box at home. Always thought that a Driver License was sufficient. This is crazy…

  • Ian Parrish

    EdB…let me clarify. I don’t like the ruling very much, but that is exactly what that supreme court case considered. It explicitly ruled on the constitutionality of inland border checkpoints. They found that brief stops of a few minutes at permanent checkpoints did not infringe any Fourth Amendment rights.

    Again, I don’t like it, but in the eyes of the SC, it’s totally legal.

  • EdB

    Well, in the case with some of the stops in the video, it didn’t look like it was a “permanent” check point so I can see how the guy got away with it. However, some looked like they were at a location with a building of some sort so I would think that would be a permanent checkpoint. So why was he allowed through then? Seems there might be something more in that ruling. Going to have to try looking it up and read it for myself.

  • EdB

    Okay. Did a quick search on that ruling. Without going into all the legalese, there was this summary…

    The Border Patrol’s routine stopping of a vehicle at a permanent checkpoint located on a major highway away from the Mexican border for brief questioning of the vehicle’s occupants is consistent with the Fourth Amendment

    The part about it having to be on a major highway away from the border is the key. If the check point is not on a highway leading from the border, I believe that ruling would not apply.

  • Daisiemae

    They all scare me out of my wits. I don’t know if I could stand up to them.

    It’s completely outrageous that we even have to think about standing up to bullying from government employees being paid from our tax dollars! It’s outrageous that they are bullying people into doing something they are not required to do by law.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I say hell no to your nat’l ID card w/ biometrics that I’d have to produce to some random “authority.” This is America, not N. Korea.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    May I suggest you write to your state and local reps? This crap won’t stop til someone tells the TSA, “No.”

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Yeah. I am not thrilled with how gov’ts around the world want to spy on its citizenry.

  • Miami510

    England, France, Switzerland, most of the entire Western
    World, and our friends in Asia, all have a national identity card. We have too, if you think about it; our state driver’s license. Unrealized by most, states are changing their requisites for documentation (or acknowledging the lack thereof) to uniformity for issuing driver’s licenses.
    Jill says “no,” but if she wants to fly in an airplane, enter major office buildings in many major cities in this country, or
    enter a hospital (as either a patient, visitor or staff) she will have to
    produce a government issued ID card… which most of the time is a driver’s license. Formalizing this system and improving it to minimize fraud by using bio-markers seems to make sense.

  • Guest

    “enter major office buildings in many major cities in this country, orenter a hospital (as either a patient, visitor or staff) she will have to
    produce a government issued ID card”

    I have never had to do that, have you? Where have you seen this happen or heard about it? Even entering the court house, i have to go through a metal detector, but I don’t have to show any ID.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I collect state capitals and have entered many Capitol buildings. The first time I had to go through a metal detector AND show ID was in Boston in 2002, which startled me, since I often don’t take my wallet with me when I’m walking 10K (less weight and less to be stolen). I’ve had to do the same many times since in many other capitals. My last visit where I had to go through a metal detector, have my stuff x-rayed AND show ID was Dover(DE) in March of this year and the friend walking with me almost wasn’t allowed to enter, because she had left her ID at home since she hadn’t driven. We had to vouch for her and were asked to stay with the tour guide, rather than looking about on our own.

    I had a funny interaction in Boise with Homeland Security in 2007 when I took a picture of a federal courthouse and I got to show them ID and explain how it was my car was 3 miles away and I was on foot and why my husband had a GPS slung around his neck and I had a camera around mine. We got a glimpse of ourselves in a mirror back in the motel room later and we DID look suspicious.

  • Guest

    So no example of “entering major office buildings or hospitals” as you originally stated?

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I think you’re mixing up who said what. I was just giving the example of having to enter a government building (Capitol) and showing ID.

    But thinking about it, my husband works for one of the major employers around here, so I guess the office building in which he works qualifies as a major office building. He has to show employee photo ID to enter, although he’s worked there for 30 years and knows all the security guards by name.

    There are hospitals on our walks across the country that are starting points for the walk in that area, so to enter the hospital and get to the sign in, we’ve had to show ID. I ran into this in Indianapolis and Orlando. Since my mother is currently hospitalized, I know for a fact that I don’t have to show ID at the hospital she’s at and never have had to do so at the other 3 hospitals in the area where she’s been a patient.

    I guess it’s all a matter of where you’re at and when you’ve had the experience. Speaking of “when”, I have to get back to the hospital, so don’t have more time for this exchange.

  • Joe Farrell

    Ignore them. Do not answer questions. Ask them for their law enforcement authority to stop traffic at this spot. State: “I do not answer questions, and am assuming I am free to go since you are not law enforcement.” And drive off – leaving them with a open jaw stare at you.

    They won’t do anything.

    It is exactly what I did with a VIPR team near Bishop on 395 between Vegas and my home in SoCal one day – I15 was clogged so I took the back road over –

    “excuse me Sir, good morning, may we check your vehicle as part of our routine inspection”


    Blank Stare

    “We are conducting a routine safety inspection of blah blah blah”

    “I said no. You are not law enforcement., You have no jurisdiction to stop me or search me. I stopped because you are blocking the road. Absent a warrant or reasonable suspicion to further detain me, I’m leaving.” Gave him a second and off I drove.

    You do NOT need to consent to the goons. You may have to stop to avoid hitting them in the roadway – but once they are out of the way, you can just leave. I do it all the time.

    DUI. license inspection, insurance card – any of the checkpoints – I refuse to cooperate. Period. I always get the “I need to see your document, its my job,” and my response is always “Your needs are not mine, there is no law mandating that I even stop here regardless of the reason for your checkpoint. I do not answer questions. Am I free to go?”

    Thats ALL I ever say. Since there was no reasonable suspicion that crime is being committed I am not required to show my papers to travel on a public road – yet.

  • Joe Farrell

    Border patrol can conduct warrantless stops inside 100nm from the borders to determine if immigration or customs laws are being violated. Given the latitude they are given – if they do anything than stop you for a brief moment to determine citizenship and ascertain hinkiness to see if you have contraband – there are very few rules and I imagine they get abused daily if not hourly. When I am driving through the border areas where I know there are checkpoints I carry my passport and just flash it – when they ask whats in the car, trunk, etc I say “I do not answer questions.” “What?” I stand on my fifth amendment right to not have to answer questions.”

    They so much want to pull you over but you have put then in a quandary – US citizen, invoking rights, actually in the country, the dog hasn’t alerted – so I always get the dirty look and sometimes the lecture about wasting their time, to which I always respond:

    “You are law enforcement. You vowed an oath to protect the constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic. I don’t recall part of that oath involving inconveniencing people who invoke the rights you are sworn to protect, have a nice rest of the day.”

  • Joe Farrell

    next time tell them to suck wind – they can threaten you – but response #1 is “I do not answer questions officer.” Once the coppers decided to argue that they could lie, cheat and mislead us into saying things they could use and twist against us – I have not said more than 10 words to a cop in a stop in a decade. They cannot use your standing on your right to remain silent as further grounds for suspicion. Ignore the threats and coercion – you will be released FASTER if you refuse to cooperate than if you let them search. They can detain you for hours once you permit a search – if you refuse they have to let you go absent probable cause to detain or reasonable suspicion a crime has been committed.

    Second point is: “State your reason for detaining me.” Then “If you refuse I will assume you are no longer detaining me and that I am free to go on my way.”

    You do not have be coerced and threatened into compliance. In fact, if they screw up – and cause their operation to get hit with a large settlement or judgment, its their job too. Once they get fired from a job as a cop its Mall Security for ever – or TSA.

  • Joe Farrell

    I have another way of making your property safe. And we don’t have to give up our freedom to do it. Between the border and 3 miles inland is a bounty hunter zone. $50 a head. Capture an illegal alien, bring him/her to a check station – CBP does DNA and finger print scan – and toss their ass across the border. Catch them again and its 5 years hard labor – we need our parks cleaned and our public buildings cared for – 28 says a month, 2 days off. 5 years. We see you again, and its 10.

    Also – allow land owners to post no trespassing zones – enforced by weapons. If some of the landowners started shooting people and leaving them for the buzzards and the coyotes, there would be a lot fewer people who would risk trespassing in that 3 miles border zone.

    It may seem harsh, but the destruction of property and living in fear of people on the border needs to end. Bounty hunters cost less than Border Patrol and competition will keep the price down. Who in their right mind will be inside that zone for any reason unless they have a reason to be there . .. . and if they do, like small airports, people recognize those who have the reason to be in a particular area,

  • Joe Farrell

    However, it is an arrest under the law – since it impedes one’s right to move. Thus – a citizen never loses the right to avoid self-incrimination. You deal with these as you will, my response is that I refuse to answer any questions posed by law enforcement on the grounds I may incriminate myself. You have no idea what they are looking for- even at an inland border checkpoint – thus – have no idea of something you say may not be true as you can prove it – I have driven through the check-point in I-15 south of Temecula when it is open – and I refuse to speak to the officer. I hand them a little card I printed . . . “My practice is to not answer any questions for law enforcement and I wish to remain silent. I will not consent to any search. If you have grounds to detain me further please state them or I will assume I am free to go.”

    Its pretty clear that I am ‘one of those.” Not too many illegal aliens or drug smugglers are constitutionalists . . . the profile it generates is too high.

  • Joe Farrell

    So the ‘war on drugs’ is reason to take our principles and turn our back on them? I don’t see that – its illegal to speed but I don’t see enforcement of that law quite so strongly as the war on drugs. . . which is used as an excuse for all kinds of beastly behavior. . . .

  • stephen_nyc

    @Hal: Here in New York City, try entering some office buildings and you will have to show id. I use my passport as I don’t want them to see my address. And some do both: bag searches & id checks.
    Oh, for what it’s worth, if you ever have to go to 26 Federal Plaza, I would recommend getting there at least an hour before your appointment, especially if said appointment is for 9am or thereabouts. As you might imagine, they do metal detectors, bag searches, take-off-your-belts-and-maybe-your-shoes.

  • Guest

    As private property, they can require whatever entrance requirements they want. I could require you to show ID to enter my home. In fact, I require service people to show ID before coming in. My concern is if the government comes onto private property and starts requiring it.

  • mizmoose

    I would imagine that if this were done by a non-white and/or non-male, the person would be arrested.

  • stephen_nyc

    @Hal, I was trying (& failing) to point out that besides the courthouses here in NYC we have to show id in other types of buildings. I agree w/ you re: service people.