By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 5/10/2005 5:06:12 PM ET 2005-05-10T21:06:12

Forgetfulness isn’t a crime, but these days it could get you fined and your name placed on a government security database.

The fines are being handed out at airports across the country to travelers caught trying to pass through security with banned items in their carry-on baggage. Fines can range as high as $10,000 and a criminal referral, according to the penalty guidelines established by the Transportation Security Administration.

Last year the TSA collected $1 million in fines from just over seven million banned items it collected. The money goes into the U.S. Treasury’s general fund. The average fine was $208 with just under 150 cases seeing fines of $1,000 or more, according to TSA figures. Of those seven million items collected, 81,600 were firearms, explosives, knives with blades over three inches and box-cutters that were “artfully concealed,” according to Amy Von Walter, a TSA spokesperson.

And simple forgetfulness isn’t going to be enough to get you off the hook anymore.  Just ask Jon Zetterlund from the Minneapolis area, who was fined $250 when airport security found a Swiss Army knife in his shaving kit. In haste, Zetterlund had removed the shaving kit from an overweight piece of checked luggage and stuffed it into his carry-on when TSA passenger screeners nabbed him.

“I told them I screwed up, said I was sorry,” Zetterlund told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He proffered no objection to having the knife confiscated. Yet several weeks later, he told the paper, a letter arrived demanding he pay the fine. Zetterlund was so taken aback, he thought the letter was some kind of elaborate scam; he eventually paid up after confirming the fine was for real.

'Aggravating circumstances'
“We typically don’t fine people for being forgetful,” Von Walter said. The TSA guidelines provide a broad outline for the types of fines that can be imposed and under what circumstances they can be modified, Von Walter said. “However, the guidance doesn’t require civil penalty in every incidence where a prohibited item is discovered,” she said. 

And in fact, typically, with the more common items, such as small Swiss Army knives or sewing scissors, TSA won’t hand out a fine, “but we do have to look at cases where there are aggravating circumstances and typically that will influence the fee amount,” Von Walter said.

In other words, if you shoot off your mouth about being caught trying to take a banned item through airport security, be prepared to pay. It’s common sense, said Von Walter, and not unlike a situation in which you’ve been stopped for a traffic violation. “Be pleasant and apologetic and respectful and it could potentially impact your situation,” she said, meaning the difference between a hefty fine and a stern warning.

Disciplinary discretion
Federal security directors at each airport are given flexibility in deciding what offenses should be fined and for how much.  “Like a judge on a bench,” has leeway to interpret the law to fit the circumstance, Von Walter said.  And that includes handing down a fine that is less than the minimum $250, she said, especially in first time offenses.

This flexibility has led to questions from Congress about whether the fines are being fairly assessed.  A person caught with a box-cutter at one airport may get off with a verbal warning while another person in similar circumstances might be hit with a $250 fine. 

“Consistency is an issue that TSA struggles with,” Von Walter acknowledged, pointing out the agency’s somewhat confusing shoe screening that seems to differ from airport to airport.  “Certainly, we want to insure greater consistency,” when it comes to fines, she said.

Ignorance is no excuse
Pleading your case in an apologetic way only goes so far, however. TSA is now three years old. The agency’s list of banned items is one of the best publicized post-9/11 government creations for no other reason than it’s often in heavy rotation of late night comedian monologues and is derided almost as much as the Department of Homeland Security’s terrorist-threat color code. 

Bottom line: the TSA feels American travelers have had fair enough warning regarding the consequences of bringing a banned item through airport security. 

“Certainly, we try and be as understanding as possible,” Von Walter said.

There’s another reason to keep your head clued in when traveling, beyond the annoyance of having to pay a fine: All the personal information collected during the process of being fined is stored on a government security database that doesn’t go away. 

“It would be safe to assume that in some cases you may be placed on a ‘selectee list,’” said a TSA source with knowledge of the process. Such lists fall short of the infamous “no fly” list, which have erroneously ensnared politicians, celebrities and other innocent travelers. But this selectee list means you’re more likely to have your ticket flagged, and that means “you would go through additional screening at airport security checkpoints,” the TSA source said.

But you don’t have to just “take it.” There is an appeal process, the TSA says. One caution though: The procedure is tedious and if you want an in-person hearing, you have to return to the place where the infraction took place. 

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