ACLU Sues U.S. Customs Service Over Degrading Search in Case of 'Flying While Black'

May 12, 2000 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union charged the U.S.Customs Service with racial profiling in a federal lawsuit filed today. The case responds to claims by the agency that the humiliating physical search of a young African-American woman at Newark Airport last year was nothing more than a routine “patdown.”

Yvette Bradley, a 33-year-old advertising executive at SpikeDDB, a partnership between filmmaker Spike Lee and DDB Needham Advertising, said that as she and her sister arrived at Newark Airport last April from a vacation in Jamaica, they, along with most of the other black women on the flight, were singled out for searches and interrogation by Customs agents.

“Inside that Customs office, I experienced one of the most humiliating moments of my life,” Bradley said of the search.

According to the ACLU lawsuit, Bradley was led to a room at the airport and instructed to place her hands on the wall while an officer ran her hands and fingers over every area of her body, including her breasts and the inner and outer labia of her vagina. The search did not reveal any drugs or contraband.

Bradley said she decided to go ahead with the lawsuit after U.S. Customs officials categorically denied that her search was anything more than a routine “patdown.”

“Yvette Bradley’s experience is a textbook example of racial profiling,” said Reginald Shuford, one of the ACLU attorneys who is representing Bradley. “And yet the Customs Service has denied any wrongdoing in her case.”

“No one should be forced to ask herself whether taking a well-deserved vacation is worth the likelihood of being targeted for an invasive, degrading search,” he added.

In a statement issued today, filmmaker Spike Lee said he was “outraged and saddened” by Bradley’s experience, “not only on her behalf but on behalf of all African-American women who have come to expect and fear this humiliating treatment.”

In recent months, Customs Service officials have publicly stated that they are taking steps to end the practice of racial profiling. Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly has said in news interviews that the agency is increasing supervision of officers who conduct the searches in airports, training them in cultural differences, and tracking the race and gender statistics of those they search.

But while these remedies are important first steps, the ACLU said that the searches are so offensive and so widespread that independent judicial supervision may be necessary to ensure that the appropriate reforms are implemented.

Lenora Lapidus, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey and one of Bradley’s attorneys, said that ‘Flying While Black’ racial profiling is not limited to a single airport or part of the country. “This discriminatory behavior affects a huge portion of the population: women of color who choose to travel.”

Statistics bear this out. 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.

Recently, spurred by the rash of complaints by minorities about unfair treatment at the hands of Customs Service agents, Reps. John D. Lewis (D-GA) and Amo Houghton (R-NY) introduced the “Civil Rights for International Travelers Act.” The bill, H.R. 4001, now pending before a House Committee, would mark the first time that a federal law enforcement agency would be barred from using race to determine who is searched. A similar bill, the “Reasonable Search Standards Act,” S. 2393, was introduced in the Senate by Democrat Richard Durbin of Illinois.

The case, Bradley v. U.S. Customs Service, et al., was filed today in U.S. District Court in New Jersey. Bradley is being represented by Shuford from the National ACLU, Lapidus from the ACLU of New Jersey, Arthur Eisenberg from the NYCLU, and cooperating attorneys David L. Harris, Alix R. Rubin, Nicole Bearce Albano and Michele Contreras Sadati of the law firm Lowenstein Sandler PC in Roseland, NJ.

Read Yvette Bradley’s statement at: /news/2000/bradley_statement2.html

Spike Lee’s statement can be found at: /news/2000/spike_lee_statement.html

The legal complaint in the case can be read online at: /court/bradley_v_USCustoms.html

To read more on the subject visit ACLU’s special feature at: /features/f051200a.html

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