TIA screeners saw the teacher's weighted bookmark as a weapon, and she was arrested. The charges were dropped, but a fine is unresolved.
TAMPA - For the past month, Kathryn Harrington has stared down the possibility of a criminal trial, a $10,000 fine and the stigma of being deemed a security risk at Tampa International Airport.
The reason? She had a bookmark with her as she passed through airport security screening.
"It was a bookmark," Harrington said. "It's not a weapon. I could not understand why I was being handcuffed and put into a police car. I cried for hours."
A month after airport police arrested her on a charge of carrying a concealed weapon - the bookmark - it appears Harrington, a 52-year-old special education teacher from Laurel, Md., could be clear of a potential $10,000 fine.
A spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration said Thursday the agency, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, is likely to drop Harrington's case as early as next week.
"I think at this point we've decided not to pursue a civil penalty," said TSA spokeswoman Lauren Stover. "But it's not a decision that can be made on the spot. These are things that require an investigation."
Harrington and her college-aged sons were flying home from a vacation in Orlando and Sarasota Aug. 17 when airport screeners found the bookmark - an 8.5-inch green leather strap with lead weights at each end - in Harrington's purse on Aug. 17. She'd carried the $9.99 bookmark on several flights since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, even through Tampa International Airport, but screeners had never noticed it.
This time, screeners thought the bookmark resembled a weighted police weapon, known as a sap or slungshot, used to knock suspects unconscious. Stover said screeners did the right thing by showing the item to airport police.
"They probably felt that this item looked fairly dangerous," she said. "It looked like a bludgeoning type of weapon that could potentially harm someone."
Harrington was questioned about the bookmark, then handcuffed and driven to an airport police holding cell.
"I pretty much cried throughout the whole thing," said Harrington, a Sunday school teacher with a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University.
According to the TSA's official prohibited items list, anyone who brings any banned item to a screening checkpoint, even accidentally, may be criminally or civilly prosecuted. Even items that are not specifically listed, but could be considered dangerous, are illegal.
Harrington was not arrested, but she was charged with carrying a concealed weapon - a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by as much as a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Earlier this month, the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office declined to prosecute the case against Harrington. Notes on why the case was not pursued were unavailable this week, because the state attorney's office was closed through Thursday in preparation for Hurricane Ivan, said Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi.
Even without a criminal charge, though, Harrington still faced a civil fine. The TSA's top fine of $10,000 is usually reserved for those carrying the most dangerous weapons - a bomb, for instance, or a loaded shotgun - but Harrington still could have been fined hundreds or thousands of dollars.
The case will be closed, Stover said, as soon as TSA's lawyers give the final say-so.
"We have an obligation to carry this full-circle," Stover said. "It will be sometime next week before all the paperwork is processed to drop the case."
Harrington's attorney, W.F. "Casey" Ebsary Jr. of Tampa, said he hopes travelers will take Harrington's case as a cautionary tale.
"Maybe the most valuable thing is that people find out that this is going on, and it won't happen anymore," he said.
Harrington, who said her friends and family reacted to the case with "jaw-dropping incredulity," said she'll no longer fly with her weighted bookmarks.
"You can be sure that my bookmark will not be in my purse," she said. "That will not be in my purse ever again when I fly."
Jay Cridlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 661-2442.