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El Jefe

Security Collars

Swedish businessman 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 20 credit cards. So he was surprised March 16 when a cop slapped handcuffs on him and six more 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 was jailed.

From his home in Europe, he describes the next day as being "like a trip out of Afghanistan." First, the jailers took away his tie. Then Tsounis, who speaks English with a slight accent and is five-foot-seven, spent ten hours in what he describes as a 100-square-foot holding tank with a variety of other lawbreakers, 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 forked out 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 the September 11 tragedy 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.

Over the past few weeks, I have reviewed dozens of arrest records from the Broward Sheriff's Office, Miami-Dade Police Department, and Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. No other newspaper in the country has yet published such a careful look at airport security collars since the World Trade Center fell. What I found was randomness, overzealousness, and callousness on the part of authorities who were perhaps too eager to safeguard the public.

Of course, some people deserved to be arrested. Several travelers carried loaded pistols. Electrician Bill Powers tried to sneak a plastic knife onto a plane at Palm Beach International Airport. Lucien Phillyppe of Fort Lauderdale had 15 knives in his carryon, police report. James Pelle of Brooklyn, six feet tall and 200 pounds, carried a four-inch knife concealed in his belt buckle through security at MIA. When it showed up in the metal detector, he said he didn't know it was there. "I have no comment" is all Pelle says about the incident now.

Carrying guns or any other weapon through a security checkpoint has long been illegal. Since terrorists hijacked planes using box cutters nine months ago, those laws have been enforced more stringently. The Federal Aviation Administration routinely issues lists of objects that are illegal in a secured area. Rules are posted and sometimes printed on tickets. Things like 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 for this column acknowledged that, generally, if a traveler with scissors, knives, or tools is stopped, the offending implement is confiscated and the person is allowed to pass after a warning. But Hugh Graf, a spokesman for BSO, 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 and he goes to jail," Graf says. "End of story."

Miami-Dade County Police Maj. Mike Hammerschmidt, who's in charge of that county's airport station, is a little more thoughtful. Everyone's learning, he says. Travelers have voluntarily tossed dozens of weapons from their carryon luggage into so-called amnesty boxes, he says. For instance, soon after the disaster, one guy removed a medieval axe 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 19-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 in 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 15 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 14 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 I replied that it was nothing to be embarrassed about, he shot back: "You were not sitting there in handcuffs." Jones's case is pending.

Most of the South Florida 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 a concealed weapon, 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's no 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 emigrated to the United States as a teenager, he arrived at Miami International Airport on February 20 after traveling to Rio de Janeiro for Carnival.

After arriving 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 50 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 220 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 says that times have changed. An increasing proportion of offenders is given nothing more than a warning. 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," he says. "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 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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