Trade Bill Lets Customs Service Use Racial Profiling; Makes it Next to Impossible to Sue Agents Who Abuse Traveling Public

August 1, 2002 12:00 am

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEWASHINGTON – The Senate began debate today on trade legislation that contains a provision that would make it practically impossible to sue Customs Service officials who engage in illegal activities, especially racial profiling.

“”The Customs Service has a notoriously bad history of racially biased law enforcement,”” said Rachel King, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “”Yet Congress, in a remarkable feat of irrationality, seems to think it wise to pass legislation that would allow Customs agents to operate illegally and engage in racial profiling with impunity.””

“”The Customs racial profiling provision violates the most American of ideas – the right to be treated fairly under a colorblind set of laws, and have access to the courts when this right is denied,”” Murphy added.

The legislation in question is a provision in the Andean Trade Bill’s conference report (HR 3009), which the Senate is expected to vote on this afternoon.

The provision – described as “”exceptionally far-reaching”” by the ACLU – would permit the Customs Service to operate under a so-called “”good faith exemption”” in all of its activities, meaning that a Customs agent who engages in illegal behavior would simply need to assert that his or her motives were pure in order to escape liability. It appears, the ACLU said, that the Customs Service wants to protect itself from liability, for even the most blantant acts of racial profiling or other abuses of the traveling public.

The ACLU also said that the change is doubly offensive because it is completely unnecessary. Current law – under what is called “”qualified immunity”” – already has broad liability protections for government agents. In the words of the Supreme Court, only those who are “”plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law”” can be held liable in the courts.

Even more bizarre, the ACLU said, is that the bill rejects “”qualified immunity”” in favor of blanket, subjective protections for the Customs Service, which has one of the most shameful records of intensive racial profiling in its enforcement duties. According to a March 2000 General Accounting Office report (, black women were nine times more likely than white women to be X-rayed after being frisked or patted down, yet black women were less than half as likely to be found carrying contraband as white women.

In one particularly egregious example, Janneral Denson, an African-American woman who was seven months pregnant, alleged racial profiling by Customs agents at the Fort-Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport in 1997. While passing through customs, Denson was detained by the Customs Service, taken to a hospital, forced to take laxatives and then shackled to a bed for two days so agents could monitor her bowel movements. Eight days after her ordeal, Denson’s son was born prematurely in an emergency Caesarean section.

The ACLU’s letter on the provision can be found at:

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