Two Black Comedians Sue Police Over Search at Atlanta Airport

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Eric André cleared security at 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 is Black, about whether he was selling drugs and what drugs he had in his possession, he said in an interview and a court complaint.

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

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During the interaction with the police, other passengers had 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 wrong,” said Mr. André, the creator of “The Eric André Show,” a stand-up comedian, actor, producer and writer. “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 another one in October 2020 by Clayton English, another Black comedian, at the same airport.

Mr. André and Mr. English filed a lawsuit this month against the Police Department, saying they were unfairly targeted for drug checks, according to the complaint. 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 at the airport and made stops between Aug. 30, 2020, and April 30, 2021, according to the suit.

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Court papers say the stops resulted in a total of three seizures: “roughly 10 grams (less than the weight of one AAA alkaline battery) of drugs from one passenger, 26 grams (the weight of about 4 grapes) of ‘suspected THC gummies’ from another, and 6 prescription pills (for which no valid prescription allegedly existed) from a third.”

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

In that time, a total of 402 stops were made. In cases where race was recorded, more 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.

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

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The Atlanta Police Department — not the Clayton County Police Department — is the primary law enforcement agency at the airport, the airport said in a statement. “APD has a robust drug interdiction program but, unless otherwise required, does not engage in jet-bridge stops of passengers,” the statement said.

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

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Richard Deane, a lawyer involved in the suit, said the purpose of the stops appeared 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 New York University’s Policing Project, and another lawyer on the case.

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

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

“I think it’s a strong suit,” she said. “In terms of the Fourth Amendment claims, it seems clear that they were seized and that searches did occur and it would be difficult to describe these as consent searches.”

Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize cash, property or vehicles based on probable cause that those involved are associated with criminal activity, Professor Colgan said. This is a low standard, she said, and people often do not challenge forfeitures because the process to get the money back is costly 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 need to say yes, and it’s a coerced sense of giving consent as opposed to a freedom of saying no and then feeling like everyone is going to suspect they had drugs on them,” she said.

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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 wrong and whether he would be arrested upon landing. When the police took his boarding pass and identification and searched his bag, he felt he had no choice but to comply.

“I felt completely powerless,” he said at the news conference. “I felt violated. I felt cornered. I felt like I couldn’t, you know, continue to get on the plane. I felt like I had to comply if I wanted everything to go smoothly.”

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 directly to the plane after they’ve cleared security because he’s afraid of repeating his experience from last year.

“It’s not just about me or what I went through,” he said. “It’s about the community I identify with. It’s about Black and brown people being discriminated against and being treated like second-class citizens, being treated as if they’re already suspicious and they don’t belong in this country by their own government and the trauma that comes with that.”

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