Comedians file drug search charges at Atlanta airport

ATLANTA (AP) — Comedians Eric André and Clayton English are challenging a police program at Atlanta airport that they say violates the constitutional rights of airline passengers, especially black passengers, through profiling race and coercive searches just as they are about to board. their flights.

Attorneys for the two men filed a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court in Atlanta, alleging they were racially profiled and unlawfully arrested by Clayton County police at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

The two men, well-known comedians and actors, say officers singled them out in separate stops about six months apart for being black and grilled them on drugs in front of other passengers.

“People were staring at me and I looked suspicious even though I hadn’t done anything wrong,” Andre said in an interview, calling the experience “dehumanizing and demoralizing.”

Although the program’s stated purpose is to combat drug trafficking, according to the lawsuit, drugs are rarely found, criminal charges are rarely laid, and the money seized is a financial windfall for the police department.

Clayton County police officers and county attorney’s office investigators are selectively arresting passengers in narrow bridges used to access planes, the lawsuit says. Officers take passengers’ boarding passes and IDs and question them, sometimes searching their luggage, before boarding their flights, attorneys said in the lawsuit.

The police department calls the stops ‘consensual encounters’ and says they are ‘random’, but in reality the stops ‘rely on coercion, and targets are disproportionately selected based on their race,’ lawyers say .

The Clayton County Police Department did not immediately respond to an email Tuesday seeking comment.

Police records show that from August 30, 2020 to April 30, 2021, there were 402 jet deck stops, and passenger travel was listed for 378 of those stops. Of those 378 passengers, 211, or 56%, were black, and people of color made up 258 total stops, or 68%, according to the lawsuit.

Those 402 stops resulted in three reported drug seizures: about 10 grams of drugs from one passenger, 26 grams of “suspected THC gummies” from another and six nonprescription prescription pills from a third, the lawsuit says. Only the first and third person have been charged.

These 402 stops also brought in over $1 million in cash and money orders from a total of 25 passengers. All but one were allowed to continue their journey, and only two – those who also had drugs – were charged, according to the lawsuit. Eight of the 25 people disputed the seizures, and Clayton County police settled each case, returning much of the money seized, the lawsuit says.

Carrying large amounts of cash does not mean someone is involved in illegal drug-related activity, argue the lawyers in the lawsuit, noting that people of color are less likely to have bank accounts and are more likely to carry large sums when travelling.

English was arrested while flying from Atlanta, where he lives, to Los Angeles for work on Oct. 30, 2020, according to the lawsuit. André had completed filming for HBO’s “The Righteous Gemstones” and was traveling from Charleston, South Carolina, to his home in Los Angeles on April 21, 2020, when he was arrested after a layover in Atlanta.

Officers blocked them as they entered the deck of the jet and asked them if they were carrying illegal drugs, according to the lawsuit. Both were asked to hand over their boarding pass and ID. An officer said he wanted to search English’s bag, and English agreed, not believing he had a choice.

“I felt completely helpless. I felt violated. I felt stuck,” English said at a press conference outside the Atlanta Federal Courthouse. “I felt like I had to comply if I wanted everything to go well.”

Andrew complained about his stop right after it happened. Clayton County Police said at the time it was “consensual.”

“Mr. André chose to speak to investigators during the initial meeting,” the department said in a statement. statement posted on Facebook. “During the meeting, Mr. André voluntarily provided the investigators with information about his travel plans. Mr. Andre also voluntarily consented to a search of his luggage, but investigators chose not to.

Andre said he felt a “moral call” to bring the lawsuit “so these practices can stop and these cops can be held accountable because it’s unethical.”

“I have the resources to draw national and international attention to this incident. This is not an isolated incident,” he said. “If black people don’t speak up for each other, who will?”

One of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit, Barry Friedman, co-founder of the NYU School of Law Policing Project, encouraged anyone else with similar experiences to get in touch.

The lawsuit names Clayton County and the police chief, along with four police officers and an investigator from the district attorney’s office. He alleges violations of constitutional rights that protect against unreasonable seizures and seizures and against racial discrimination.

The comedians are asking for a jury trial and asking that the Clayton County police jet bridge ban program be declared unconstitutional. They are also seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as legal costs.

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