As a physical security professional, I frequently travel with items such as lock picks, and other bypass tools when they are needed for assessments. I have had many people ask me after conference presentations, local Nashville security meetups, etc. about the very vague Tennessee state law regarding the possession of lock picks, which makes it seem as though simply possessing these tools is a crime. I’ve even been told things like “It’s okay to possess them if you own a house in the state”, and other interesting myths.
Here is a high-level explanation of the law according to TOOOL, which they also state that they are not lawyers:
“Laws targeting rogue & scammer locksmiths are broadly-written and criminalize possession of lockpicks by unlicensed persons if said persons are seeking to earn money by defrauding the public.Use and demonstration of lockpicks appears to be legal if not done for profit.”
So, because I do travel with and use these “burglar tools” frequently, I wanted to have a definite answer, and want to know my rights in case I’m ever in a position where I’m being questioned by TSA, law enforcement, etc. What is acceptable? Is there a letter or something that I can carry to show that why I have these?
Thankfully, I was able to get a solid answer directly from those involved in the law in the great state of Tennessee!
The answer: It all depends on your intent.
Possessing lock picks, bypass tools, etc. is not illegal. But if you’re using them in an illegal way, and the intent is burglary, then it’s illegal. This even applies to common household tools such as screwdrivers, bolt cutters, hammers, and more. Owning a screwdriver is not illegal, obviously. But the minute that you utilize this tool for breaking and entering, it is now classified as a “burglar tool”, which is not good for you.
What does this mean for security professionals who use these tools in the state, or travel with them?
It all comes down to proving intent.
If you’re questioned by TSA while traveling, simply show a business card, or a letter from your company stating that you need these tools for assessments, or anything else that helps to proves your intent.
If you’re performing a physical assessment and local law enforcement responds, stay cool and comply to their requests. Provide them your Letter of Authorization (“Get out of jail free”) letter, ask them to call the contact numbers on that letter, and explain that you were hired by the company to assess whatever it is that you’re tasked with assessing. Again, the whole point here is to prove your intent, and that you were not doing anything illegal.
I want to stress that I am NOT a lawyer. I am simply passing down information that was provided to me directly from the TN Dept. of Safety and Homeland security.