Jury Finds African American Passenger Was Unlawfully Detained at Logan Airport

December 10, 2007 12:00 am

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BOSTON – On Friday, a Suffolk Superior Court jury found state police unlawfully detained American Civil Liberties Union attorney King Downing at Logan Airport in October 2003, and Downing agreed to a settlement of his claims against William Thomspon, the state trooper principally responsible for the unlawful detention.

Downing, a Harvard-educated lawyer who is the National Coordinator of the ACLU’s Campaign Against Racial Profiling, testified at trial that he was stopped for questioning by state police troopers after simply using a phone on his way out of Logan Airport on the morning of October 16, 2003. Police demanded to see Downing’s identification and travel documents, which he was under no obligation to provide. After initially being told that he must leave the airport, which he intended to do anyway, Downing was surrounded by five state troopers and told he was under arrest. Although the police had no reason to stop him, Downing was detained for 40 minutes until he finally acceded to police demands for his identification and travel papers.

“The jury found that Mr. Downing was unlawfully detained by the state police,” said Peter B. Krupp, an attorney with the firm Lurie & Krupp LLP, who represented Downing in cooperation with the ACLU of Massachusetts. “The jury verdict puts the state police on notice that its programs, including the post-9/11 Passenger Assessment Screening Program, must assure in the future that voluntary encounters between troopers and members of the traveling public do not become the type of unlawful detention that Mr. Downing experienced.”

Downing had stopped on his way out of the airport to use a pay phone outside the secure area, and he contended that the only thing that would have attracted the attention of the trooper was his appearance. Downing is an African American who wears a beard. Downing testified that while he was on the phone, a state trooper positioned himself just a few feet away where he could easily listen in on Downing’s call. When Downing objected, the trooper demanded to see his identification.

The ACLU’s lawsuit alleges that Downing’s detention was the result of the Passenger Assessment Screening System (PASS, also known as the Behavior Assessment Screening System). The PASS program was designed to thwart terrorists and was put into effect at Logan Airport in 2003. Similar screening systems are now in use at dozens of airports around the country. While the jury did not find that the incident on October 16, 2003 was necessarily the result of the PASS program, it nonetheless found that the police had unlawfully detained Downing because they had detained him without reasonable suspicion to believe he had committed any crime.

“A jury with no blacks found that my rights were violated,” said King Downing. “This case sends a message to blacks, and to all people, to stand up for their rights.”

“This jury verdict upholds an important principle,” said Carol Rose, Executive Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “In the United States, people cannot be stopped without cause by the police and required to produce identification and papers proving that they have a right to be in a particular place. ‘Your papers please’ is a phrase that is alien to a free society.

“Police and airport security personnel should be on the lookout for genuinely suspicious behavior, but the law is clear that they may not stop someone unless they have a reasonable suspicion that a crime or an act of terrorism might be committed. The use of behavioral characteristics, like those that were kept secret in this case, does not justify the detention of someone in a non-secure area,” added Rose.

The ACLU of Massachusetts has questioned the use of behavioral pattern recognition out of concern that it increases the likelihood of racial profiling.

“The police are going to find suspicious behavior where they look for it,” said Rose. “And experience teaches us that they are more likely to look for it among people of color or a particular ethnicity. We will all be safer if security personnel base their investigations on evidence, not simply racial characteristics.”

More information about Downing v. Massachusetts Port Authority can be found online at:

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