A user asked

How do I minimize the chances of TSA agents confisticating liquids larger than 3 ounces?

My question is - are the TSA rules legally binding or not? Whether or not you get charged if caught (you probably won't), are the rules actually LAW?


The TSA was created by the act of Congress, which also empowers it to make and enforce regulations, and gives the executive branch the authority to press charges. In addition there are also FAA regulations which are also authorized by the Congress.

Acting against the TSA/FAA regulations is acting against regulations placed by an agency authorized by the Congress to place it. It makes it illegal.

Consider "Speed Limit" sign - there's no law for every street and road limiting speed on that particular road. But there's a law allowing designated agencies to put and enforce speed limits on various roads based on various conditions. TSA regulations are similar in nature.

  • 1
    Your example is flawed: Designated traffic agencies are allowed to choose which speed limit to enforce on what road. They are not allowed to invent new rules. The TSA, according to your post, does have this privilege. However, this does not answer the juridical question of those TSA-created rules having an equal status to laws. (In other words, is the TSA a Legislative authority or are they (only) allowed to implement and enforce laws.) – Jacco Jun 26 '12 at 10:22
  • 1
    @Jacco The law (passed by Congress) gives executive agencies (including DHS/TSA) the authority within certain constraints to make rules to achieve the purposes of the laws. The Federal Aviation Regulations work the same way. See the Code of Federal Regulations. The laws which authorize this rule making also specify what penalties could be dealt out for breaking them (which can including criminal prosecution.) Duke's law school has a more thorough explanation here. – reirab Oct 2 '15 at 13:58
  • 2
    @Jacco Note that TSA can't just make up whatever rule they want. They have to act within the (relatively narrow) authority they've been granted by Congress, just like with the speed limit example. Same applies to the FAA, EPA, DOT, etc. The same principle is also used within state level governments (legislatures granting specific authority to executive regulatory agencies.) – reirab Oct 2 '15 at 14:03

At the end of the day, the question boils down to "Can you be arrested or fined for trying to bring banned items on board?", and the short answer to that is "No", unless you're trying to bring in weaponry or getting uppity when busted. Straight from the horse's mouth:

TSA recognizes that most passengers who carry prohibited items do so without any ill intent. TSA does not impose fines on the vast number of passengers who inadvertently carry prohibited items. Dealing with any prohibited item, however, adds time to the screening process both for the traveler who brought the item and for other travelers as well. Some items pose such a risk to the traveling public and the screening work force that TSA will consider imposing a fine on the traveler.

Items for which fines may be imposed include firearms, ammunition and other explosives, incendiaries including larger amounts of self-defense spray, and certain dangerous knives. Fines also may be imposed when passengers attempt to artfully conceal prohibited items or behave in a manner that is so uncooperative and disruptive that it physically interferes with the screening process. Carrying some prohibited items could result in both a civil and criminal enforcement action.

Basically, violations of TSA regulations can lead only to civil charges, not criminal ones; you cannot be arrested or thrown in jail for breaking them. There are only two caveats: one, they'll happily dob you over to the regular cops if you actually do something criminal like punching them, and two, there are some things like heavy weaponry (but not 4-oz bottles of water) that are banned by criminal law as well.

  • your second link doesn't seem to work? – Mark Mayo Jun 23 '12 at 5:26
  • 1
    Oops, it appears you didn't read the last line when you said violations could only lead to civil charges, not criminal ones - directly from your quote - "Carrying some prohibited items could result in both a civil and criminal enforcement action.". Guess that's a yes, you can be criminally charged then? – Mark Mayo Jun 23 '12 at 5:30
  • 2
    Something being illegal doesn't mean something being criminal. Speeding isn't a criminal offense in most cases, just as well. TSA is not law enforcement per se, but its regulations are to be complied with. – littleadv Jun 23 '12 at 8:42
  • @Mark: Carrying drugs or weapons on a plane is a federal offence, hence the line about criminal charges, but this has nothing to do with TSA regulations. – lambshaanxy Jun 23 '12 at 10:22
  • @jpatokal As I don't know US law, your interpretation may be correct in the end but you are certainly over-interpreting the text you're quoting to back that up. It only discusses inadvertently carrying prohibited items. Nowhere does it says that the TSA cannot and never will impose fines and the end of the second paragraph clearly implies that it could under certain conditions do it, rightly or wrongly, for any type of item if they consider that you are deliberately trying to break their rules (which, in many countries, is actually a precondition for all criminal offenses). – Relaxed Oct 10 '13 at 21:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.