NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union and Covington & Burling LLP filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of passengers of a domestic Delta Airlines flight who were held and searched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents before being allowed to deplane. Every single passenger on Flight 1583 from San Francisco to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport was stopped and had their identity documents seized and searched.
“The officers did not have any legal justification for seizing and searching these passengers,” said ACLU Deputy Legal Director Cecillia Wang. “This is a serious and illegal erosion of our basic civil liberties. Because CBP publicly took the position that this action was pursuant to policy and a ‘routine’ matter, we are compelled to take action to ensure that this doesn’t happen to passengers on future flights.”
As Flight 1583 was arriving at JFK on the evening of February 22, the Delta Airlines flight crew announced that all passengers would have to show identification to deplane. Many passengers were surprised, disturbed, and wondered aloud what authority the government had to prevent them from leaving the airplane and require that they produce identification documents.
Agents blocked the plane doorway, forcing passengers to queue inside and delaying their exit as officers stopped them one by one, took their identification documents, scrutinized them, and only then permitted them to pass. The officers never asked for passengers’ consent.
Plaintiff Kelley Amadei and her 7-year-old son were deeply shaken by the experience. Amadei recounts how the agents halted and stared down her and her son; she is white, and he has darker skin. Amadei was alarmed by this wordless exchange and finally told the officer that her son is just 7 and does not carry identification. Only then did the agent back off and let them leave the plane.
“It was very upsetting. My son was so scared that he asked if our family was in trouble and whether everything was okay,” she said. “The officers refused to explain why they were doing this, even when asked. I have flown a lot and this has never happened before. Treating passengers with coercive force like this is not okay, and should not become the norm.”
The CBP agents, acting at the behest of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, violated the passengers’ rights against unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, the lawsuit charges. The government’s policy also violates the Administrative Procedure Act.
The case, Amadei v. Duke, was filed in U.S. District Court/Eastern District of New York. It names officials from the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as defendants.
The lawsuit in part seeks a permanent injunction barring the government from seizing and conducting warrantless and/or suspicionless identification checks of passengers disembarking from domestic flights.