The odds weren’t fair. They rarely are when it’s six on one, with the bigger team enjoying home-field advantage in a windowless, concrete room.
Last March 29, Steve Bierfeldt was surrounded by TSA agents and police in the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. He had just spent a long weekend shaking hands and schmoozing sponsors at the Campaign for Liberty regional conference, an offshoot of the movement spawned by Ron Paul’s 2008 Republican presidential campaign. Bierfeldt just wanted to get back home to Virginia.
Air travel is as much ritual as function these days. You stand in line. Take off your belt, your shoes, your bulky outer garments. You cram shampoos and mouthwashes into three-ounce containers and then stuff those into clear plastic baggies. You herd yourself through stalls and past checkpoints. Bags get pulled aside, searched, and the occasional personal manicure set or contraband bottle of water is thrown into the trash.
When Bierfeldt’s bag was flagged for search he figured it was simply one of those routine inconveniences of modern America. It’s not like he was carrying anything illegal. He had a computer, some bumper stickers, brochures, and a box filled with $4,700 in cash he’d raised in his role as the Campaign for Liberty’s director of development.
“I know there are some regulations regarding the number 10,000, and I thought as long as I was under $10,000 I was legal,” Bierfeldt said. “For now it’s still legal to carry cash.” But it was the cold, hard cash and additional checks that caught the TSA’s attention. And that’s when the questions started.
“Why do you have all this money?”
“Where did it come from?”
“Who do you work for?”
Politely, Bierfeldt asked if the law forced him to answer the questions. When the answer was yes, he provided the required information. When the officers wouldn’t or couldn’t answer, he declined, citing his legal right to privacy. That didn’t satisfy the TSA agent, who dragged him into a closet-sized questioning cell.
“Anyone who knows anything about law enforcement knows you don’t say anything to the police when they start questioning you about your actions,” Bierfeldt said. He didn’t have anything to hide and he hadn’t done anything illegal, but Bierfeldt didn’t want to give the authorities any information that could appear incriminating. Not in Missouri.
In March, an internal document surfaced from the Missouri Information Analysis Center (MIAC) titled “The Modern Militia Movement.” The MIAC report identified potential domestic terrorists as tax resistors, anti-immigration activists, and anti-abortion advocates. It specifically singled out support for former presidential candidates Ron Paul, Bob Barr, Chuck Baldwin, or the Constitution and Libertarian parties, along with anti-tax bumper stickers, as common militia symbols. The Campaign for Liberty was mentioned by name.
An open letter from Barr, Baldwin, and Paul forced an apology from Governor Jay Nixon, but the report had already been distributed to Missouri law enforcement. Bierfeldt’s options were simple: either risk falsely indicting himself as a potential terrorist or demur from voluntarily offering the authorities his private information. He chose to exercise his Constitutional right to shut up.
“Some people will say if you don’t have anything to hide, just submit to government,” Bierfeldt said. “Well, I don’t trust the government with everything. The Bill of Rights protects the innocent from government abuse, so I don’t think I should submit to them unless I have to.”
The officers started out about as nice and polite as any policemen who suspect you are drug smuggler or some other kind of criminal could be. Bierfeldt tried to return the favor. He gave the officers his driver’s license, and they already had his property and boarding pass. But they just wouldn’t answer that one question: Does the law compel me to answer your questions?
A little over four minutes into their back and forth, the officers lost their patience. Although his background check came in clean, and he was only suspected of legally carrying a large sum of cash, a team of police officers and TSA agents questioned Bierfeldt and tried to scare him. They invoked the ominous alphabet soup of DEA and FBI. They threatened to cuff him and take him downtown.
Some digital sleight of hand caught the whole encounter on tape. As he was pulled into the questioning cell Bierfeldt tapped the screen of his iPhone, activating its recently downloaded voice recorder. You can hear the officers get angry. They ask him if he is from this planet and advise him to say what they want to hear if he has nothing to hide. Eventually a plain-clothed agent walked in on the interrogation. Within minutes he examined the cash box and campaign literature, and immediately released Bierfeldt.
The rest of the trip was easy. The TSA agents grudgingly let him through security. Bierfeldt kept his cash box and his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. He even made his flight.
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