Mom Arrested and Strip-Searched After 9/11 Flight Settles Lawsuit

April 21, 2015 9:45 am

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DETROIT — The American Civil Liberties Union announced a settlement in its lawsuit filed on behalf of Shoshana Hebshi, a mother of two who was pulled off an airplane at gunpoint, arrested, strip-searched, and detained. The case was brought against Frontier Airlines and several government defendants.

The ACLU charged that Hebshi, who is of Saudi Arabian and Jewish descent, was singled out at Detroit Metropolitan Airport because of her Middle Eastern name and appearance. Hebshi was never accused of any wrongdoing, and a federal judge twice denied defendants' attempts to have her claims thrown out.

"People do not forfeit their constitutional rights when they step onto an airplane," said Rachel Goodman, an attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "This settlement sends that critical message, and will help protect future passengers from having to endure what Shoshana went through."

Hebshi was traveling home to Ohio on September 11, 2011, after visiting her sister in California. She was seated next to two men of South Asian descent whom she did not know. When the flight landed, armed agents boarded the plane and arrested all three of them. Hebshi was held in a jail cell, forced to submit to a humiliating strip-search, and detained for hours. She later discovered that she had been pulled off of the plane after fellow passengers became suspicious of the amount of time each man spent in the restroom. All three were later released without charge.

"I filed this lawsuit because I didn't want others to experience the kind of unnecessary trauma that I did, and it has given me faith that the justice system can work to protect constitutional rights," said Hebshi. "This settlement gives me some peace of mind. Now, I feel like I can finally put the incident behind me."

Under the settlement terms that can be disclosed, Hebshi will receive $40,000 from the federal government to compensate her for the severe humiliation she suffered. Additionally, under the settlement, Frontier has agreed to amend its employee handbook to more clearly state its zero-tolerance policy on discrimination and to provide all new employees with training on that revision. Frontier also will amend its customer complaint policy to ensure allegations of discrimination are given the appropriate attention.

The federal government provided sworn statements promising that this incident did not land Hebshi on any federal terrorism watch lists. The airport police have similarly provided assurances that no record of the arrest remains.

During the course of litigation, the Wayne County Airport Authority independently implemented changes to its police policies and training that address many of Hebshi's concerns.

The ACLU filed the suit in January 2013. In March and July 2014, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan issued decisions allowing Hebshi's equal protection and illegal search and seizure claims to proceed.

In one opinion, Judge Terrence Berg wrote, "Under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, a full-custodial arrest, and a warrantless strip-search of a person in temporary detention, are unreasonable in the absence of probable cause. As of yet, there is no 'suspected terrorist activity exception' to the probable cause requirement of the Fourth Amendment. The Court declines to sacrifice these principles of liberty to the cause of hyper-vigilance."

Hebshi was represented by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Michigan, Goodman & Hurwitz, P.C., and Covington & Burling LLP.

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