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Two Black Comedians Sue Police Over Search at Atlanta Airport

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Eric André cleared security on the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, gave the gate agent his boarding pass and was moments away from stepping onto a plane when he was stopped by officers with the Clayton County Police Department.

The officers questioned Mr. André, who’s Black, about whether he was selling drugs and what drugs he had in his possession, he said in an interview and a court grievance.

They asked to examine his bag. When he asked if he needed to comply, the officers said no, and Mr. André was eventually cleared to board, he said.

Through the interaction with the police, other passengers needed to squeeze past Mr. André and the officers on the jet bridge, the narrow passageway that connects the gate to the airplane during boarding. He said he was allowed onto the plane but left shaken by the interaction.

“I knew it was unsuitable,” said Mr. André, the creator of “The Eric André Show,” a humorist, actor, producer and author. “It was humiliating, dehumanizing, traumatizing. Passengers are gawking at me like I’m a perpetrator as they’re like squeezing past me on this claustrophobic jet bridge.”

Mr. André’s encounter in April 2021 echoed one other one in October 2020 by Clayton English, one other Black comedian, at the identical airport.

Mr. André and Mr. English filed a lawsuit this month against the Police Department, saying they were unfairly targeted for drug checks, in accordance with the grievance. Their lawyers said the department’s practice discriminated against Black travelers who had already been cleared by Transportation Security Administration agents.

The Clayton County Police Department runs a jet bridge interdiction program on the airport and made stops between Aug. 30, 2020, and April 30, 2021, in accordance with the suit.

Court papers say the stops resulted in a complete of three seizures: “roughly 10 grams (lower than the burden of 1 AAA alkaline battery) of medicine from one passenger, 26 grams (the burden of about 4 grapes) of ‘suspected THC gummies’ from one other, and 6 prescription pills (for which no valid prescription allegedly existed) from a 3rd.”

Two passengers — those that had the roughly 10 grams of medicine and the pills — were charged, the suit said.

In that point, a complete of 402 stops were made. In cases where race was recorded, greater than half of the 378 passengers who were stopped were Black.

The Clayton County Police Department declined to comment, citing pending litigation. In April 2021, when Mr. André shared his experience on Twitter, the department denied wrongdoing.

“Any such interaction occurs often during our officers’ course of duties, and is supported by Georgia law and the U.S. Structure,” a 2021 department statement said. The department added, “Our preliminary findings have revealed that Mr. Andre was not racially profiled.”

The Atlanta Police Department — not the Clayton County Police Department — is the first law enforcement agency on the airport, the airport said in an announcement. “APD has a strong drug interdiction program but, unless otherwise required, doesn’t engage in jet-bridge stops of passengers,” the statement said.

From September 2020 to April 2021, the police seized about $1 million from passengers, in accordance with the lawsuit, which was filed within the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

Richard Deane, a lawyer involved within the suit, said the aim of the stops seemed to be to seize money and that the stops were made largely, if not solely, based on race.

The suit maintains the police violated the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and the equal protection clause, which guarantees racial equality and prohibits racial discrimination, said Barry Friedman, founding director of Recent York University’s Policing Project, and one other lawyer on the case.

“We now have a terrific concern about police acting when there’s no policy in place, particularly democratically accountable policy that guides the discretion of law enforcement officials,” he said at a news conference this month. “When there’s undue discretion, we get what you have got here, which is severe racial discrimination.”

Drug interdiction programs at airports began in 1975 with a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operation in Detroit and expanded to other airports, said Beth A. Colgan, a law professor on the University of California, Los Angeles.

“I believe it’s a robust suit,” she said. “By way of the Fourth Amendment claims, it seems clear that they were seized and that searches did occur and it will be difficult to explain these as consent searches.”

Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize money, property or vehicles based on probable cause that those involved are related to criminal activity, Professor Colgan said. It is a low standard, she said, and folks often don’t challenge forfeitures because the method to get the a reimbursement is expensive and time-consuming.

Courts have favored law enforcement in cases of consent versus coercion, said Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, a fellow and visiting professor at Harvard Kennedy School.

“People may feel the necessity to say yes, and it’s a coerced sense of giving consent versus a freedom of claiming no after which feeling like everyone seems to be going to suspect they’d drugs on them,” she said.

Mr. English, who lives in Atlanta, was the winner of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” competition in 2015 and has headlined in clubs, colleges and festivals.

He said he spent his three-and-a-half-hour flight in 2020 wondering what he had done unsuitable and whether he can be arrested upon landing. When the police took his boarding pass and identification and searched his bag, he felt he had no alternative but to comply.

“I felt completely powerless,” he said on the news conference. “I felt violated. I felt cornered. I felt like I couldn’t, you recognize, proceed to get on the plane. I felt like I needed to comply if I wanted all the things to go easily.”

Mr. André lives in Los Angeles but travels through the Atlanta airport often for work and has recently taken to hiring a service that brings passengers on to the plane after they’ve cleared security because he’s afraid of repeating his experience from last yr.

“It’s not nearly me or what I went through,” he said. “It’s in regards to the community I discover with. It’s about Black and brown people being discriminated against and being treated like second-class residents, being treated as in the event that they’re already suspicious and so they don’t belong on this country by their very own government and the trauma that comes with that.”

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