Comedians sue over drug search program at Atlanta airport
LISTEN: Comedian Eric André talks with GPB's Orlando Montoya about a police program at the Atlanta airport that he says violates the constitutional rights of airline passengers. He and fellow comedian Clayton English have filed a lawsuit over the program, alleging that it particularly targets Black passengers through racial profiling and coercive searches.
Comedians Eric André and Clayton English are challenging a police program at the Atlanta airport they say violates the constitutional rights of airline passengers, particularly Black passengers, through racial profiling and coercive searches just as they are about to board their flights.
Lawyers for the two men filed a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court in Atlanta alleging that they were racially profiled and illegally stopped by Clayton County police at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
The two men, well known comedians and actors, say officers singled them out during separate stops roughly six months apart because they are Black and grilled them about drugs as other passengers watched.
"People were gawking at me and I looked suspicious when I had done nothing wrong," André said in an interview, calling the experience "dehumanizing and demoralizing."
While the stated purpose of the program is to fight drug trafficking, the lawsuit says, drugs are rarely found, criminal charges seldom result, and seized cash provides a financial windfall for the police department.
Clayton County police officers and investigators from the county district attorney's office selectively stop passengers in the narrow jet bridges used to access planes, the lawsuit says. The officers take the passengers' boarding passes and identification and interrogate them, sometimes searching their bags, before they board their flights, the lawyers say 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 selected disproportionately based on their race," the lawyers argue.
Clayton County police spokesperson Julia Isaac said the department doesn't comment on pending litigation.
Police records show that from Aug. 30, 2020, to April 30, 2021, there were 402 jet bridge stops, and the passenger's race was listed for 378 of those stops. Of those 378 passengers, 211, or 56%, were Black, and people of color accounted for 258 total stops, or 68%, the lawsuit says.
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 prescription pills without a prescription from a third, the lawsuit says. Only the first and third person were charged.
Those 402 stops also yielded more than $1 million in cash and money orders from a total of 25 passengers. All but one were allowed to continue their travels, and only two — the ones who also had drugs — were charged, the lawsuit says. Eight of the 25 challenged the seizures, and Clayton County police settled each case, returning much of the seized money, the lawsuit says.
Carrying large quantities of cash doesn't mean someone is involved in illegal drug activity, the lawyers argue in the lawsuit, noting that people of color are less likely to have bank accounts and are more likely to carry large sums when they travel.
English was stopped while flying from Atlanta, where he lives, to Los Angeles for work on Oct. 30, 2020, the lawsuit says. André had finished a shoot 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 stopped after a layover in Atlanta.
Officers blocked them as they entered the jet bridge and asked if they were carrying illegal drugs, the lawsuit says. Both were asked to hand over their boarding passes and identification. An officer said he wanted to search English's bag, and English agreed, not believing he had a choice.
"I felt completely powerless. I felt violated. I felt cornered," English said at a news conference outside the federal courthouse in Atlanta. "I felt like I had to comply if I wanted everything to go smoothly."
André complained about his stop right after it happened. Clayton County police said at the time that it was "consensual."
"Mr. Andre chose to speak with investigators during the initial encounter," the department said in a statement posted on Facebook. "During the encounter, Mr. Andre voluntarily provided the investigators information as to his travel plans. Mr. Andre also voluntarily consented to a search of his luggage but the investigators chose not to do so."
André said he felt a "moral calling" to bring the lawsuit "so these practices can stop and these cops can be held accountable for this because it's unethical."
"I have the resources to bring national attention and international attention to this incident. It's not an isolated incident," he said. "If Black people don't speak up for each other, who will?"
One of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit, NYU School of Law Policing Project co-founder Barry Friedman, encouraged anyone else who has had similar experiences to get in touch.
The lawsuit names Clayton County and the police chief, as well as four police officers and a district attorney's office investigator. It alleges violations of the constitutional rights that protect against unreasonable searches and seizures and against racial discrimination.
The comedians seek a jury trial and ask that the Clayton County police jet bridge interdiction program be declared unconstitutional. They also seek compensatory and punitive damages, as well as legal costs.