What happens to stuff confiscated at security checkpoints?

February 24, 2017

Dear Cecil:

On a recent trip to the White House gardens, I had to pass through TSA-type metal detectors at the entrance. It was a spontaneous visit and I had my Leatherman multi-tool attached to my belt. The Secret Service promptly confiscated it and told me I wouldn’t be able to recover it after the tour. What happens to all the items taken away at these checkpoints, or at the airports?

Cecil replies:

You’re lucky they let you in at all. While you might not find any mentions of climate change or civil rights on the official website of the executive branch, you will see this: “Individuals who arrive with prohibited items will not be permitted to enter the White House.” In practice, as you learned, most absentmindedly armed visitors — as well as those bearing purses or bags, lotion, makeup, or other miscellaneous no-nos — can just hand the offending items over to the agents. But don’t expect to get a claim ticket. The White House site again: “No storage facilities are available on or around the complex.” Surely there’s enough petty cash in the budget to spring for a locker or two (this is a regular online complaint from the sort of people who regularly complain online), but we’re talking about the federal government here, and rules are rules.

And rule number one is that government officials can’t return items handed over to them. That’s apparently just how it is. The stuff is classified as “voluntarily abandoned property” — you may believe that your Leatherman was confiscated, but as the government sees it, you volunteered to surrender the multi-tool, since you had the option to turn around and walk home with it instead. The methods an agency may use to dispose of these lawfully gotten gains are prescribed by the General Services Administration, the bureaucrats in charge of administering government bureaucracy. Their regs affect almost all Americans, because they apply not just to the White House guards, who few of us regularly encounter, but to some far more familiar confiscators: our handsy pals at the Transportation Security Administration.

Though TSA employees don’t get to keep your goodies themselves (despite common misconception), the agency is permitted to retain abandoned property if there’s some official use for it — except, as per statute, “large sedans and limousines,” which wouldn’t fit underneath your seat or in the overhead compartment anyway. As the agency has no pressing need for nail clippers or pump bottles of Jergens, a large portion of the TSA’s haul is slated for what the federal code calls “abandonment and destruction.”

Most of the more valuable stuff, though, goes up for sale. Federal agencies aren’t allowed to turn a profit on your abandoned goodies, but nothing prevents the state where the airport’s located from making a buck, and there’s a thriving secondary market for this plundered booty at state-run surplus stores. The TSA gathers up their haul periodically and ships it out for resale, and there’s a quite a load to ship — the “property custodian” at Newark, for instance, visits ten sites and gathers up more than 100 pounds of stuff daily, maybe twice that on holidays. Some states give cops and firefighters first dibs on the loot, but usually it goes straight to the shelves, or is sold online through private companies like Govdeals.com, which says its inventory comes from “8,500 government entities.”

And what are these shops and sites peddling? Well, they’re overstocked with Leathermans, along with kitchen knives, baseball bats (tip: neither the scaled-down wooden collectibles nor the Wiffle-ball variety are allowed onboard), and many, many pairs of scissors. You might even find a samurai sword or a replica WWII-era German submachine gun — yes, people who walk among us have tried to bring those on planes.

What you won’t find, even though plenty get seized at airport checkpoints, are actual, working guns. The TSA maintains a blog, presumably intended to make the not entirely beloved agency seem more upfront and friendly, and here they disclose their weekly weapons haul. In one week this January, for instance, the TSA found 70 guns (63 loaded, 18 chambered), and that seems to be a fairly typical number. These get turned over to local law enforcement, who may destroy them or resell them as they see fit. Each new TSA post contains boilerplate language gently chiding forgetful airport-bound gun owners, but it doesn’t seem to be working. One starts to understand why those agents can act so testy.

Of course, the White House and the airport aren’t the only entry points where the feds diligently empty your pockets. A lot of crap, for instance, was confiscated — sorry, abandoned — at the entry to last month’s inauguration festivities. As at many large-scale events, umbrellas were prohibited (leaving George W. Bush to don a poncho as best he could), but a BBC employee reported that his colleague had to surrender a banana; according to a McClatchy article, other impounded items included two cans of Chef Boyardee ravioli and a tin of sardines, which one volunteer suggested might wind up as lunch for event staffers. A mild enough joke, but the General Services Administration probably doesn’t think it’s funny at all.

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