Traveler fights fine for not-uncommon carry-on mistake

Minn. man who forgot Swiss army knife in bag is ordered to pay $250

February 23, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Jon Zetterlund of Stillwater, Minn., made a not-all-that-uncommon mistake when passing through an airport security checkpoint. But he's getting hit with a hefty fine, a fine that he initially assumed to be phony.

On a trip back to the Twin Cities from Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 14, Zetterlund forgot that he had a Swiss army knife in his shaving kit. That was the shaving kit he jammed in his carry-on when he had to hastily unload an overweight checked bag.

At the security checkpoint, a screener found the knife. Zetterlund said he surrendered it, along with a pair of nail scissors.

"I told them I had screwed up, said that I was sorry and I wanted to get under way as soon as possible, and that they could dispose of my scissors and Swiss army knife any way they saw fit," said Zetterlund, a network administrator for GreenTree Servicing, a financial services firm in St. Paul.

He thought that was the end of it. But several weeks later he got a letter demanding that he pay a $250 fine to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. To him, it looked like a scam.

"Any high school kid could easily duplicate both the envelope and its contents," he said.

The letter said that he was being fined for attempting to bring a weapon into the "sterile" airport environment but that he could settle things fast by paying half the fine.

"I was sure that this was some sort of scam, or at the very least a bad joke," Zetterlund said. "What a racket. `Send $125 and we'll go away, or ignore it and risk having to pay $250.' ... At least the address I was to send my fine to wasn't somewhere in Nigeria. So, in a nutshell, I chose to ignore the notice."

Then he got a second, more official-looking letter, including 40 pages of regulations about prohibited items and fines. But he was suspicious about that one too. He sent an e-mail to the Knight Ridder/Tribune news service, asking if the fine was legitimate.

It's for real.

"It looks very official to me," TSA spokesman Christopher White said about the fine notice form the TSA sends out. Zetterlund has several options for appealing the fine, White said. They include an informal conference with a TSA attorney, a formal hearing before an administrative law judge or filing evidence in support of a fine reduction. The TSA would settle for half the penalty at any step along the way, he added.

The reason Zetterlund was fined for his knife probably has to do with its blade length, White suggested. It was longer than 3 inches, capable of doing more harm than stubbier versions.

Typically, the TSA does not assess fines for the most common items it grabs, such as scissors and Swiss army knives, said TSA spokeswoman Amy von Walter. And penalties for first-time offenders tend to be at the low end of the fine range, which runs from $250 to $10,000.

Last year, the TSA collected 7.1 million prohibited items. Of those items, 81,600 were firearms, explosives, knives with blades over 3 inches and box cutters. The agency assessed fines in 9,787 cases, and sent warning letters in 14,270 others. It collected a bit over $1 million in fines.

A senior TSA manager at an airport decides if a penalty is warranted, after reviewing reports from screeners, von Walter said. Fines are more likely to be assessed if someone has a history of carrying forbidden items or if the transgressor is "aggressive" or tries to conceal a banned item.

None of that applies to him, Zetterlund said. He said he's flown without incident about five times since he lost his knife. He's going to appeal the fine.

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