Detained or Arrested at a Los Angeles Airport

The Airport is unique in that it is one of the few places where your identification and background can be checked at will. There are multiple airports in Los Angeles:

  • Los Angeles International (LAX),
  • Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport (BUR),
  • Long Beach Airport (LGB),
  • Orange County/John Wayne (SNA),
  • or Ontario (ONT).

Los Angeles and Ontario are International airports, which have heightened security, but it is possible, and legal, for you to be taken into custody or detained at any airport under specific circumstances.

Common Airport Arrest Charges

Here are some common arrest charges made an airport:

Bench Warrant

If you have an outstanding bench warrant, which is a warrant that was issued by a Court, you may be detained or arrested at the airport for the warrant. It is more common for your name to be checked against various databases when you are traveling internationally. Even then, it is far more likely that you are arrested attempting to come back into the country than you are when leaving.

If you have a bench warrant and you need to travel, it might be in your best interest to retain a lawyer who can hope to receive a “stay” or hold on a warrant so that you may travel without getting arrested. If you are unsure whether or not you have a bench warrant, check your local court’s website in order to avoid any potential arrests.

Child Support

In order to be arrested for failing to pay child support, there would first need to be a warrant out for your arrest. Second, the particular airport where you are traveling in and out of would need to check a database that contains your arrest warrant. Additionally, you may be arrested in a different state if that state happens to scan a database containing your name and warrant.

Prohibited Items

Prohibited items on airplanes range from a tube of toothpaste larger than 3 ounces to guns and baseball bats.

Some prohibited items are “street legal” such as swiss army knives, and some prohibited items are illegal, such as heroin. If you are caught with a swiss army knife, the TSA will ask you if you would like to check the item, store it in your car, or, if the airport has post capabilities, mail it home. If you don’t choose any of these options, they will throw your item away, or collect it, but you won’t be allowed on the airplane with it. But most importantly, you will not be arrested.

If you’re prohibited item is also an illegal item, you risk arrest. TSA does not arrest travelers, they alert law enforcement to the activity. Depending on what you are carrying and what the local laws are you can face fines or arrest. California Penal Code 171.5 explicitly states which items are not allowed in the “sterile area” or what we commonly refer to as security or screening area.

Drugs Possession Offense (drug smuggling is under “Customs Search” below)


Weapons Possession Offenses

  1. Firearms / Ammunition

    Firearms must be unloaded, locked in a hard case, and declared with an airline representative. Firearms are only allowed on a plane in checked luggage.

    In California, if you are caught with a gun in the security line, the TSA will alert the police. The police can choose to arrest you if you are carrying the gun illegally, or if they suspect you intend to use it dangerously.

    Ammunition can be checked with your gun. For more information, see the TSA website. You can only be arrested for bringing ammunition on an airplane if you appear like you intend to use it in some way. Otherwise, it should be treated like a prohibited “street legal” item.

  2. Knives / Box Cutters / Razors

    Any item with a blade must be checked. The only sharp items allowed in your carry-on luggage are scissors less than 4 inches long and small needles required for medical purposes. If your knife is street legal and you bring it through security you are not likely to be arrested. Unless, the police have reason to believe that you intended to harm or endanger other passengers.

  3. Replica Grenades, Replica Guns

    Replica guns are not allowed in carry-on luggage because if seen in the cabin, they may cause panic. Replicas, and not bullet guns, such as airsoft or paintball guns, can be checked in a hard case, but they do not need to be declared as actual firearms do.

    Carrying these items through security is not likely to result in you being detained or arrested. If you are detained or arrested, it is because TSA or the police thought you intended to cause harm, panic or chaos. You will likely need to hire a lawyer to combat any charges.

  4. Tear Gas

    Tear gas is prohibited in carry-on and checked luggage. The fine for bringing toxic chemicals on a plane can be up to $50,000 and you may be imprisoned for up to 5 years.

  5. Tasers / Stun Guns

    Tasers are admitted on an airplane in checked luggage only.

Traffic Violation

This is another situation where practice and theory might not always align. Like other airport arrests, a bench warrant or arrest warrant must have been issued in your name in order to appear in a database. If your name comes up during a database search, it is possible that you can be arrested. However, depending on the airport, and the time of year, or day, it is possible that customs officer won’t take the time to arrest you on the spot.

Disturbing the Peace

Disturbing the peace can also be called disorderly conduct. Disorderly conduct is a highly subjective crime and can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. The severity of the crime charged is the result of the overall impact the alleged behavior had on public safety.

In airports, disturbing the peace is particularly dangerous due to the anxiety around airport security and the necessity for security and police to remain vigilant and focused on the safety of the passengers. Airports, like post offices and military bases, may have stricter prohibitions than an average public place, and arguing your first amendment right to free speech does not work if you are inciting danger or jeopardizing the safety of those around you.

False Report of Explosives

California Penal Code section 148.5 makes it a crime to falsely report to a peace officer (police, TSA, etc.) that a felony or misdemeanor has been committed. In California, bringing an explosive device through airport security is a crime, therefore, falsely representing that you have an explosive device, is also a crime.

California Penal Code 148.4(2) makes it a crime to send a false alarm of fire. These two codes are similar. The intent is to keep people from causing group panic and distracting resources from their primary purposes. They also have similar defenses. Both codes have similar defense strategies as well: purpose. If you did not make a bomb threat to a peace officer while he or she was engaged in the performance of his or her duties, and you did not know at the time that you were making a false accusation, you may have a legal defense. Similarly, if you did not willfully intend to cause panic, but rather, you wished to warn people of what you believed was an actual fire, you also have a legal defense.

Taken into Custody After Customs Search

Smuggling items into the country, or sometimes, across state lines, can be a federal offense, depending on the contraband. There are stories of people smuggling jewelry, precious stones, precious metals, gold, plant products, even animals such as turtles, snails, hummingbirds, and reptiles!

Of course, the most common smuggling cases deal with drugs and money over allowed undeclared amounts. Drugs are illegal, there is no getting around it. Money is different. Money is not illegal unless it is associated with an illegal business. The same is true for most of the above items. Smuggling indicates that you are illegally carrying something across a border.

There are two important things to remember

  1. A TSA officer is responsible for asking you about the items in your suitcase. They are trained to gauge your reaction for any hesitation, resistance, or lying. Remember, that you always have the right to remain silent, and that you do not have to answer their questions. Just like with the weapons listed above, the TSA agent will try to determine the reason you are carrying any prohibited items and the information you provide can follow you to trial.
  2. Punishments for smuggling are based a sliding scale. Law enforcement will weigh the risk of the contraband, the consequences of smuggling the contraband, the amount and danger of the contraband, and your criminal history. For example, a person who smuggled 10 turtles into the United States received community service, probation, and had to pay a fine. A person who smuggles 10 grams of methamphetamine into the United States will receive jail time, likely 5-40 years in prison.

Speak to One of our Criminal Defense Attorneys Today

As you can see, there is a certain subjective nature to airport arrests and detentions. The TSA is trying to determine which items are dangerous and which are mistakes. They are not only charged with protecting everyone in the airport, but also, to keep the line moving. This kind of responsibility can be stressful, often tedious, and can lead to mistakes.

Hire a defense attorney who can sort out the complicated and vague charges associated with airport arrests. Call the Law Offices of Jerod Gunsberg at (310) 210-0744 for a free and confidential consultation.