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Screeners and security personnel working for the Transportation Security Administration can’t be sued for false arrests, abuse or even assault, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

In a 2-1 decision, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said that TSA officials are shielded under the federal statute that gives federal employees what’s known as sovereign immunity when acting in their official functions. That law, the Federal Tort Claims Act, doesn’t provide cover for law enforcement, however. In its decision, the Third Circuit ruled that TSA screeners aren’t considered law enforcement, and thus aren’t exempted from FTCA protections.

The case, Pellegrino v. the United States of America Transportation Security Administration, arose from a 2006 incident in which Florida business consultant Nadine Pellegrino spent 18 hours in jail after a contentious screening by TSA officers at Philadelphia Airport (PHL) that ended with her being arrested and charged with assault and making threats. Pellegrino later sued the TSA and the individual officials involved for $951,200, accusing the agents of damage to property, malicious prosecution, emotional distress and false imprisonment. The parties settled one claim of property damage outside of court, but a federal district court sided with the TSA on all the other claims and wouldn’t let the case proceed to trial.

The Third Circuit reiterated the lower court’s decision Wednesday, and said that TSA officers conduct “administrative searches,” not searches related to criminal investigations, meaning that they get the full protection from lawsuits afforded by the FTCA.

“For most people, TSA screenings are an unavoidable feature of flying, and they may involve thorough searches of not only the belongings of passengers but also their physical persons — searches that are even more rigorous and intimate for individuals who happen to be selected for physical pat-downs,” Circuit Judge Cheryl Ann Krause wrote in the decision.

But they still don’t meet the level of lifting the immunity afforded federal employees by law, she concluded: “Congress to date has limited the proviso to ‘investigative or law enforcement officers,’ and [transportation security officers] do not meet that definition.”

In his dissent, Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro argued that the TSA’s physical searches have become invasive enough that they should be considered on par with searches of criminal suspects. He said that Pellegrino’s lawsuit should be allowed to go to a civil trial.

Pellegrino’s attorney didn’t return calls for comment Wednesday, and it’s unclear whether she will seek to appeal the ruling.

Featured photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

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