Comedians Eric André and Clayton English are suing Clayton County police following separate incidents of alleged racial profiling and coercive searches at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, reports AP. In the lawsuit filed by their lawyers in Atlanta’s federal court, both comedians claim their constitutional rights that protect against unreasonable searches and seizures and against racial discrimination were violated last year while they were boarding their respective flights. The lawsuit names Clayton County, the police chief, four police officers, and a district attorney’s office investigator. In addition to a jury trial, compensatory and punitive damages, and legal costs, André and English seek a declaration that the Clayton County police’s jet bridge interdiction program is unconstitutional.
The purpose of Clayton County’s program is to fight drug trafficking, states the lawsuit, but drugs are rarely found during these stops and seized cash serves as a financial windfall for the department. André and English’s lawyers claim that Clayton County police officers and investigators from the county district attorney’s office choose which passengers to stop on jet bridges (the hallways that connect planes to terminals), take boarding passes and IDs from said passengers, interrogate them, and then potentially search their baggage. The lawyers claim these stops “rely on coercion, and targets are selected disproportionately based on their race,” but the police department refers to the stops as “consensual encounters” that are selected at “random.”
In April 2021, André tweeted about his experience at the Atlanta airport shortly after it happened. “I was just racially profiled by two plain clothes Atlanta PD police in Delta terminal T3 at the Atlanta airport. They stopped me on the way down the bridge to the plane for a ‘random’ search and asked they could search me for drugs. I told them no,” he tweeted. “At that moment, I was the only POC on line.” He later spoke at length about the incident on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, explaining that the search was carried out on the jet bridge, long after he had passed security. André described the conduct of Clayton County Police Department as “old-school, Giuliani stop-and-frisk racial profiling” and said their statement included “a bald-faced lie” and mischaracterized the sequence of events.
Police records from August 30, 2020 to April 30, 2021 show there were 402 jet bridge stops at the Atlanta airport. Of the 378 passengers whose race was listed, 211 people were Black (56% of those stopped) and 258 were people of color (68% of those stopped), the lawsuit says. Out of the 402 total stops, only three reported drug seizures: 10 grams of drugs from one passenger, 26 grams of “suspected THC gummies” a different passenger, and six prescription pills without a prescription from a third passenger, the lawsuit reads. Two of those people were charged. The lawsuit also states that those 402 stops yielded more than $1 million in cash and money orders from 25 passengers, but only two people—the same caught with drugs—were charged. Eight people challenged their money seizures and Clayton County police settled each case, returning much of the money, the lawsuit says.
At a news conference outside Atlanta’s federal courthouse, André said he felt a “moral calling” to file the lawsuit “so these practices can stop and these cops can be held accountable for this because it’s unethical.” He continued, saying, “I have the resources to bring national attention and international attention to this incident. It’s not an isolated incident. If Black people don’t speak up for each other, who will?”
Barry Friedman, one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit and a co-founder of the NYU School of Law Policing Project, encouraged anyone who has had similar experiences to contact him.