Published March 27, 2008
LOS ANGELES – A Texas woman who said she was forced to remove a nipple ring with pliers in order to board an airplane called Thursday for an apology by federal security agents and a civil rights investigation.
"I wouldn't wish this experience upon anyone," Mandi Hamlin said at a news conference. "My experience with TSA was a nightmare I had to endure. No one deserves to be treated this way."
Hamlin, 37, said she was trying to board a flight from Lubbock to Dallas on Feb. 24 when she was scanned by a Transportation Security Administration agent after passing through a larger metal detector without problems.
The female TSA agent used a handheld detector that beeped when it passed in front of Hamlin's chest, the Dallas-area resident said.
Hamlin said she told the woman she was wearing nipple piercings. The women then called over her male colleagues, one of whom said she would have to remove the jewelry, Hamlin said.
Hamlin said she could not remove them and asked whether she could instead display her pierced breasts in private to the female agent. But several other male officers told her she could not board her flight until the jewelry was out, she said.
She was taken behind a curtain and managed to remove one bar-shaped piercing but had trouble with the second, a ring.
"Still crying, she informed the TSA officer that she could not remove it without the help of pliers, and the officer gave a pair to her," said Hamlin's attorney, Gloria Allred, reading from a letter she sent Thursday to the director of the TSA's Office of Civil Rights and Liberties.
Hamlin said she heard male TSA agents snickering as she took out the ring. She was scanned again and was allowed to board even though she still was wearing a belly button ring.
"After nipple rings are inserted, the skin can often heal around the piercing, and the rings can be extremely difficult and painful to remove," Allred said in the letter.
Hamlin filed a complaint, but the TSA's customer service manager at the Lubbock airport concluded the screening was handled properly, Allred said.
Allred said she might consider legal action if the TSA does not apologize.
On its Web site, the TSA warns that passengers "may be additionally screened because of hidden items such as body piercings, which alarmed the metal detector."
"If you are selected for additional screening, you may ask to remove your body piercing in private as an alternative to a pat-down search," the site says.
Hamlin would have accepted a "pat-down" had it been offered, Allred said.
Hamlin was publicly humiliated and has "undergone an enormous amount of physical pain to have the nipple rings reinserted" because of scar tissue, Allred said.
"The conduct of TSA was cruel and unnecessary," Allred wrote. "The last time that I checked a nipple was not a dangerous weapon."
TSA spokesman Dwayne Baird said he was unaware of the incident. There is no specific TSA policy on dealing with body piercings, he said, "as long as it doesn't sound the alarms."
If an alarm does sound, "until that is resolved, we're not going to let them go through the checkpoint, no matter what they're wearing or where they're wearing it."
People routinely pass through security wearing wedding rings without problems, and it might take a larger bit of metal to trigger an alarm, Baird said.