By Andrew Pantazi, Fri, Apr 4, 2014
Each year, more and more Jacksonville International Airport passengers are stopped at security checkpoints with guns, a rate that tripled in just two years, jumping from 10 to 30.
Each time, airport police let the passengers go, fines in one hand and their guns in the other.
Jacksonville Aviation Authority police have not arrested any passengers stopped with guns in a decade because, interim airport Public Safety Director Lt. Mark Stevens said, all of them mistakenly brought the guns with them and had no criminal intent.
Despite the growing number of guns finding their way to security checkpoints, Jacksonville Aviation Authority executive director Steven Grossman said, his complex is safe. The security staff has almost doubled in the last five years, and he argued the airport is safer than ever.
Still, the State Attorney’s Office said if a crime has been committed, it always would review the case and potentially bring charges if police arrest the passengers.
In 2011, 10 passengers at the Jacksonville airport brought guns to the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint, whether in a carry-on or on their body. The next year, security stopped 19 people with guns. In 2013, security stopped 30 passengers with firearms.
Federal Transportation Security Administration officers cannot arrest armed passengers, but the agency does fine them up to $11,000 and up to $3,000 if the guns are not loaded. The officers turn over the guns to airport police with a criminal referral, but it’s up to police to decide whether to arrest the passengers.
In Jacksonville, police detain the passengers and interview them, but if they decide the passengers brought the guns to the checkpoint by accident, they return the weapons. Passengers can then properly store their firearms in checked baggage, store them in their cars or leave the weapons with friends. They are allowed to continue on their flights.
“Somebody who makes a mistake like that, is it really justified that they have an arrest on the record?” Grossman said. “That carries a lot of consequences. A lot of job applications ask if you’ve ever been arrested. Not if you’ve been convicted, just if you’ve been arrested. That seems like a pretty high penalty to pay. If we have reason, we will absolutely arrest somebody.”
The Orlando Sentinel reported last month that Orlando International Airport authorities arrest every passenger who brings a gun, with two exceptions out of 44 last year, according to the police. Orlando police Sergeant Roger Brennan did not return four phone calls, multiple phone messages and an e-mail asking for comment on his agency’s policy.
If it’s obvious the passenger wasn’t trying to sneak the gun past security, Jacksonville’s airport police director Stevens said he doesn’t see why the passenger needs to be arrested. He also wondered how effective Orlando’s policy is.
“Even though you’re physically arresting them, how many cases are you bringing to trial?” Stevens asked.
The Ninth Circuit State Attorney’s Office prosecutor and spokesman Richard I. Wallsh said most of the cases don’t end in a conviction. To convict a passenger, the prosecutors would need to prove the passenger knowingly brought the gun to the airport. Instead, many cases are not prosecuted, or the cases are resolved in a pre-trial diversion program that avoids a conviction.
“Even though people get arrested here, it is unusual that they would get a felony or misdemeanor conviction,” he said.
Just this week, a 49-year-old Ohio woman was arrested on felony charges of carrying a concealed weapon without a license at the Orlando airport in her carry-on bag. Julie Powell said she didn’t realize the gun was inside the suitcase, which she borrowed from her father.
Months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Transportation Security Administration was formed, along with a ban against bringing guns to security checkpoints. The federal ban, though, only includes civil fines. It’s up to local law enforcement and local and state laws to decide if bringing guns to a security checkpoint is worthy of arrest.
Jacksonville’s airport policy of not arresting passengers is more normal than Orlando’s, according to David Borer, general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees union that represents Transportation Safety Administration workers. He said he doesn’t accept the idea that passengers brought the guns on accident, and he wants them arrested.
“Fifty people a week show up with a gun at airports around the country. The majority of those guns are loaded,” Borer said. “… With officers assaulted and now killed, the law enforcement needs to do their job.”
He said the union has proposed creating its own law-enforcement agency capable of arresting passengers for violating state or federal law.
Donald Thomas, the local union president and a Transportation Security Administration screener in Orlando, said more guns show up because screeners and the technology are getting better at finding them and more people are carrying weapons in Florida. By the end of March, 1.4 million residents had concealed weapon permits in Florida.
“A lot of people in Florida have guns, and they forget it’s in the bags,” he said. “There are a lot of people who’ve got guns now who aren’t used to having them.”
Borer doubted a passenger could accidentally bring a gun. Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Sari Koshetz said the agency takes it very seriously when passengers bring guns to security checkpoints.
She pointed out that sometimes passengers use the same bag previously used on a road trip and forget about a gun that was left stowed away.
“As more time has passed since 9/11,” she said, “many passengers have become lax in packing for a flight. The same suitcase may have been used for road trip, so you need to unpack before you pack for a flight. … It is the passenger’s responsibility to know what is in their suitcase.”
Jacksonville Aviation Authority police director Stevens said potential passengers have no reason to worry. “The safety of the flying public is our utmost concern,” he said. “Thirty guns seems like a lot, but we’re catching them and that’s the most important thing.”
Stevens, who has been at the airport police since 2010, said it’s his understanding that from 2001 to 2004, police arrested passengers and the State Attorney’s Office wouldn’t prosecute the cases because there was no criminal intent. In 2004, police stopped arresting passengers unless it was clear they were trying to sneak the guns past security. Asked for a copy of that policy, the Jacksonville Aviation Authority did not produce it, saying that it is sensitive security information.
Jackelyn Barnard, the spokeswoman for the State Attorney’s Office, said the new administration is unaware of the airport policy, and “If charges are warranted, charges will be filed.”
Grossman, the airport’s top executive, said police look for repeat offenders, and to his knowledge, no passenger has brought a gun to the safety checkpoint twice. Comparing the Orlando and Jacksonville airports’ policies, he said, is tricky.
“In my business, the saying is if you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport. We’re all different,” he said. “We have a pretty simple airport with one checkpoint all passengers go through. We can provide an excellent layer of security rather easily.”
Andrew Pantazi: (904) 359-4310