Home Airports Can You Refuse A TSA Pat Down?

Can You Refuse A TSA Pat Down?

by SharonKurheg

There aren’t a whole lot of people who like stopping at the TSA security checkpoint. At best the queue and TSA officers (TSAOs) are the ones between you and your next step at the airport (the lounge, a restaurant, shopping, the rest room, your gate, etc.). At worst the TSAOs are crabby and yell at people.

When you get up to the TSA security checkpoint, if you show certain behaviors, that could definitely earn you a secondary screening. Specific things TSAOs see in your carry-on bag via their CAT machine may also mean they have to look through your bag. They may also decide to swab you and/or your stuff (here’s why they do swabs and this is how to potentially avoid a false positive on a swab test).

And then there’s the dreaded pat down. People hate it, and with good reason – it’s physically and psychologically uncomfortable. Some people even go as far as to say they feel violated.

Here’s what the TSA has to say about what to expect during a pat down:

TSAOs use pat downs as a security precaution to see if a traveler is concealing something prohibited on their person at the TSA security checkpoint.‌ Among other reasons, they may require a pat down if a traveler:

  • loses the TSA lottery and gets chosen for a random check
  • has gotten the dreaded SSSS on their boarding pass
  • is acting suspiciously (going back to show certain behaviors that TSAOs are trained to look for)
  • doesn’t want to or can’t go through the metal detector or an Advanced Imaging Technology unit via typical procedure (read: they’re pregnant, can’t hold the required body position, are wheelchair-bound, etc.)
  • sets off the alarm when going through the body scanner

Regarding that last bullet, to their credit, thanks to technology, the TSA has figured out a way to decrease the number of pat downs they do. That being said, some people still have to get patted down, due to “reasons.”

Which brings us to a very interesting question:

Can you refuse a TSA pat down?

Although they’re federal employees, TSAOs have no legal abilities to “make” you do anything. They’re not police officers, sheriffs or any other kind of employee with the authority to force you to do anything. So legally, yes, you can refuse to be subjected to a TSA pat down.

However if you refuse, you won’t be allowed to go through the security checkpoint. That means you won’t be allowed to enter the secured area of the airport. And with that, you won’t be able to board your flight.

What would happen if you refused?

If you do initially refuse a pat down, the TSAO will offer you a final chance to change your mind. If you still refuse, they will call the airport police, who will escort you away from the security checkpoint. At that point, your options are done; you won’t be allowed to re-enter the security checkpoint.

Once you’ve been escorted out of the secured area, you will be told to leave the airport. If you try to reenter the security checkpoint anyway, or try to somehow bypass security in order to get to your departure gate, you could be subject to a criminal referral by the TSA to law enforcement. This means criminal charges could be brought against you.

The TSA can also legally levy a civil penalty against you for refusing a pat down. This is rare, but it does happen, depending on the circumstances of a specific case (such as this one).

So….can you refuse a pat down? Yes. But will you get onto your plane? No. And depending on circumstances, you may wind up with a civil penalty or criminal charges, to boot.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary


Shaun June 4, 2023 - 4:49 pm

I was flying AA home from Tampa after visiting my folks and the TSA agent at the check point was smoking hot….like Brad Pitt’s doppelganger. I thought about putting something metal in my crotch and crossing my fingers. Can you opt IN for the pat downs?

derek June 4, 2023 - 6:06 pm

Easy. You can refuse a pat down and be denied boarding the flight.

I would prefer pat down by a woman, not a man.

Gem June 5, 2023 - 8:12 am

I just wish they’d adjust the settings so that underwire bras didn’t set things off. I’ve been groped-and I do mean properly groped-more than once, and by both men and women. Crossing the line from pat-down to sexual assault, essentially sanctioned by the US government, only in the USA.


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