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Journalist, Mother of Two Handcuffed, Detained & Strip-Searched After A Flight Because Of Ethnicity
“I was frightened and humiliated, and my rights were clearly violated solely because of my ethnicity,” said Hebshi, a freelance journalist who lives in Sylvania, Ohio, with her husband and twin boys. “As an American citizen and a mom, I’m really concerned about my children growing up in a country where your skin color and name can put your freedom and liberty at risk at any time. This kind of discrimination should not be tolerated.”
On Sept. 11, 2011, Hebshi was traveling to Detroit Metro Airport after visiting her sister in California. She was seated next to two men of South Asian descent, who she did not know. When the plane landed, armed agents boarded the flight and Hebshi and the two men were handcuffed and ordered off the flight at gunpoint. Officers refused to explain the arrest and Hebshi did not know when she would be able to call her family. She was placed in a 6’ by 10’ cell with a metal cot and a video camera above the open toilet. While in the cell, a crying Hebshi was ordered to strip naked and squat and cough as an officer looked on. The officer than looked in Hebshi’s mouth, lifted her eyelids and searched her hair. She was released four hours later after being interrogated.
“The illegal arrest and strip search of Ms. Hebshi is not simply a mistake made by an airline employee or government agency, but a predictable consequence of institutionalizing racial stereotypes and mass suspicion as law enforcement tactics,” said Sarah Mehta, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. “Racial profiling is unconstitutional and counterproductive. No one is safer because an innocent mother of two was dragged off a flight, strip searched and held for several hours.”
Through public records, the ACLU discovered that Hebshi was removed from the flight because she was seated next to the men and because of her ethnic name. A small number of passengers noticed the two men go to the bathroom in succession and complained to the flight crew. The two men were cleared of any wrongdoing and were also released from custody later that evening.
“Law enforcement officers cannot use race or ethnicity to justify targeting someone for arrest,” said Rachel Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “This kind of discrimination leads to racial profiling, an issue that affects far too many communities across the country every day. Such practices are unlawful and also betray our cherished American principles of fairness and equality.”
The complaint cites a number of violations, including unreasonable search and seizure prohibited by the Fourth Amendment, and discrimination prohibited by the federal civil rights laws. The lawsuit was filed against Frontier Airlines as well as officials with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Wayne County Airport Authority, Detroit Metro Airport Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).
Federal law should explicitly ban racial profiling. The ACLU has been encouraging Congress to pass the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA), which would prohibit profiling on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity or national origin, and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to update its guidelines on the use of race in federal law enforcement.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Michigan, the Detroit law firm of Goodman & Hurwitz, and the Washington, D.C., office of the law firm of Covington & Burling.
For more information about the case, Hebshi v. USA, including a copy of the complaint and a statement from Hebshi: www.aclu.org/racial-justice/hebshi-v-united-states//
- Text of Lawsuit by ACLU (123.1 KB)