(CNN) – Police officers stopped Eric André as he boarded a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles in April 2021 and, a few months earlier, the same thing happened to another Black comedian in the same place, a lawsuit alleges.
André and fellow comedian Clayton English filed the lawsuit claiming the stops were the result of racial profiling.
“Police officers came out of nowhere in like, almost like an ambush style and started, singled me out. I was the only person of color on the jet bridge at the time,” André said in a news conference Tuesday.
“They singled me out. They asked me if I was selling drugs, transporting drugs, what kind of drugs I have on me,” he said.
A lawsuit filed Tuesday by André and English alleges that this stop was part of an anti-drug trafficking program carried out by the Clayton County Police Department in Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport that unfairly targets Black fliers.
“It was clearly racial profiling. The experience was humiliating and dehumanizing, degrading, I had all the other passengers squeezing by me on this claustrophobic jet bridge gawking at me like I was a perpetrator,” André said.
Police stopped English on a flight, also to Los Angeles, in October 2020.
CNN has reached out to both the police department and the Atlanta Department of Aviation for comment.
“I was almost on the plane when, in the jet bridge two officers popped out, showed their badges, and started asking questions whether I had illegal drugs like cocaine, and I feel cornered in a jet bridge and I felt the need to comply,” English said in the news conference.
After the incident involving André, Clayton County police denied any wrongdoing, CNN affiliate WSB-TV reported.
The station published this statement released then by the police:
“On April 21, 2021, the Clayton County Police Department made a consensual encounter with a male traveler, later identified as Eric Andre, as he was preparing to fly to California from the Atlanta Airport. Mr. Andre chose to speak with investigators during the initial encounter. 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. Investigators identified that there was no reason to continue a conversation and therefore terminated the encounter. Mr. Andre boarded the plane without being detained and continued on his travels. The Drug Enforcement Administration and the Atlanta Police Department did not assist in this consensual encounter.”
The lawsuit claims that the Clayton County Police Department describes the “jet bridge interdiction program” as “consensual encounters” carried out at “random,” but argues that in a post-9/11 flying atmosphere, encounters with law enforcement in airports are unlikely to be seen as anything but required.
The two name multiple members of the Clayton County Police Department in their lawsuit and allege that the department carries out these stops and searches in a way that targets Black passengers. The filing cites Clayton County Police Department records showing 56% of passengers (or 378 individuals whose races are listed) stopped in this manner are Black.
“The Clayton County Police Department, along, sometimes, with the county district attorney’s office has been conducting interdiction of passengers on jet bridges as they’re getting on their airplanes to ask them about whether they have drugs on them,” Barry Friedman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in the news conference.
“It’s not a very successful interdiction program,” Friedman said. Clayton County Police Department records show that out of 402 jet bridge stops from August 2020 to April 2021, only three seizures were made, according to the lawsuit.
“They’ve come up with very little drugs, but they’ve taken a lot of cash off of passengers,” Friedman said. The lawsuit filing calls the jet bridge program “financially lucrative.”
“Over the 8-month period in question, the program seized $1,036,890.35 in cash and money orders via 25 civil asset forfeitures,” the filing reads.
Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize property they allege is connected to a crime. Organizations like the ACLU have criticized it as a legal way for police to steal from civilians, as obtaining one’s property after it’s been seized is notoriously difficult.
“Yet, of the 25 passengers who had cash seized, 24 were allowed to continue on their travels, often on the same flight, and only two were ever charged with any related crime.”
“The Clayton County Police Department has described this program as a drug interdiction program. For what we’re able to see by simply looking at the open records information that we’ve received, it seems to be a distinctly unsuccessful drug interdiction program, if that’s what it is,” Richard Deane, another member of the plaintiff’s legal team, said in the news conference.
“What appears to be happening is that this is organized largely in order to seize money from people, on the hope that they’re not going to thereafter make the claim for those funds,” he said.
André called the experience “traumatizing.”
“When two cops stop you, you don’t feel like you have the right to leave, especially when they start interrogating you about drugs. The whole experience was traumatizing. I felt belittled,” he said. “I want to use my resources and my platform to bring national attention to this incident so that it stops.”
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