Are 'snooping' customs officials secretly searching through your luggage?

Are 'snooping' customs officials secretly searching through your luggage?


Ever get that niggling feeling your luggage isn't quite how you packed it? You might be right.

A new report has found that customs officials are secretly searching through thousands of passengers' bags looking for excess alcohol and cigarettes.

The report, carried out by Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine, reveals that searches are carried out on inbound flights after suitcases are taken off planes, but before they are placed at the luggage carousel for passengers to collect.

The practice appears to be rife, despite the fact that it goes against current guidelines.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Mr Vine said: "We found that covert bag checks were being undertaken by the [Border] Agency, but they weren't recording all the checks that were being made. They were only recording the ones where they found contraband in the case."

"What I'm saying in the report is that this should be recorded on every occasion."

Contradictory rules have made it impossible to check whether the searches are "lawful, proportionate and controlled", says the report.

The Daily Mail says that the Border Force Enforcement Handbook states that such searches are banned unless they take place as part of a specific operation. And even then, when the passenger is "not in attendance", officials need written authorisation from a senior manager in advance, apart from in exceptional circumstances.

But this is contradicted by a rule in draft guidance from 2008, which permits covert searches without written authorisation when used "proportionately".

The practice was uncovered after an inspection at Birmingham Airport, where 1,147 pieces of luggage were seized following secret searches in the year leading up to September 2012.

According to the Daily Mail, Mr Vine said: "I found there was no central record to show occasions where covert baggage searches were carried out. The absence of these records meant that no assurance could be provided to demonstrate that this power was being used in a lawful, proportionate and controlled manner."

Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, which campaigns to defend civil liberties, said: "The fact the figures are not being properly collected begs the question if staff think they can get away with snooping in people's luggage in search of a quick laugh or cheap thrill."

A Border Force spokesman told the Daily Mail: "Searching baggage, including when the owner is not present, is a legal and proportionate response to this issue. Any such searches must be authorised by a senior officer.

"We have already taken action on the recommendations the Chief Inspector made in his report."

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Are 'snooping' customs officials secretly searching through your luggage?

Last March, a toddler in a wheelchair was subjected to an invasive body search and swabbed for explosives on his way to Disneyland. His father, who filmed the incident, which took place at Chicago O'Hare Airport, said: "He was trembling with fear... I was told I could not touch him or come near him during this process." 

A man who is believed to posess "the world's largest penis" sparked a security scare after airport staff at San Francisco International Airport thought he might have been concealing a weapon. Jonah Falcon (pictured) was subjected to a rigorous patdown and had powder sprinkled on his pants to check for explosives...

Last Christmas, an 85-year-old woman in a wheelchair claimed she was strip-searched at JFK Airport, New York. Leonore Zimmerman, who has a defibrillator for heart problems, was worried that the scanners would interfere with her life-saving device, so asked for a pat down. Instead, she says she was taken to a private room and told to remove her clothes in a humiliating search that also left injured. The process took so long that she also missed her flight. Howver, the TSA denied the incident had taken place.

In June, a passenger was left devastaed after a TSA official spilled the ashes of his grandfather over the terminal floor. John Gross was attempting to take the ashes home to Indianapolis when he was stopped at security. He claims she dipped her finger into the jar, spilling its contents onto the floor, despite TSA rules that state that a crematory container are to be opened in no circumstances.

This summer, a report revealed that a disproportionate amount of women were being singled out for strip searches at Gatwick Airport. The government's chief investigator of immigration John Vine, also revealed that Afro-Caribbean women in particular were being targeted. Reasons given for strip searches by Border Force staff at Gatwicks' North Terminal included only buying a ticket one day before travel, they were carrying £200 in cash, and because they were visiting the UK to look for hair and beauty products. New guidance on searches has since been rewritten.

One US passenger Mandi Hamlin hit the press a couple of years ago when she was stopped and wanded by a TSA employee and asked to remove her metal nipple rings. One came out with no problem, but the other got stuck - and eventually had to be removed using pliers. OUCH.

Last year, security officials at Gatwick Airport banned a passenger from carrying a toy soldier on a transatlantic flight. The three-inch plastic toy gun was branded a 'firearm'. Passenger Julie Lloyd, who had bought the figure as a present for her husband, told the Daily Mail:"It is only three inches long and there are no moving parts. There isn't even a trigger." She eventually posted it to herself instead.

When two children tried to take their Christmas gift of Play-Doh past the checkpoint at New Orleans airport, an overzealous agent confiscated it, despite the fact Play-Doh is not on the list of prohibited items. Apparently, aents can use "their own discretion". Never mind that millions have been invested on explosive detection equipment: it wasn't deemed necesary to use it. Running Play-Doh through the explosives detector would have taken under a minute...

In 2011, security officials at Florida airport patted down a 95-year-old cancer sufferer and made her remove her adult 'nappy' during the search. She was then forced to go through airport security without any underwear. CNN reported that Jena Weber was travelling with her mother, who was in the final stages of her battle with leukaemia, last June to see relatives. In response to the incident, the TSA said:"We have reviewed the circumstances involving this screening and determined that our officers acted professionally and according to proper procedure."

... meanwhile, in August 2012, a boy of 11 managed to slip through security at Manchester Airport and fly to Rome without a passport or barding pass. Liam Corcoran evaded five security checks to join the Jet2.com flight unaccompanied.

2012 was the year of "naked" body scanner in the UK - and it caused massive controversy. Passengers refusing to pass through them have, in the past, been banned from flying. The scanners -0 which gave security officers an eyeful - have now been banned by the EU, (ironically on safety grounds) - but not before millions have been spent on installing them... plane madness? We think so!

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