Eric André and Clayton English allege racial profiling at Atlanta airport

Comedian Eric André was returning home to Los Angeles in April 2021 when he said an experience during a routine layover in Atlanta left him humbled.

Walking down the narrow bridge from the gate to the plane, he said, two plainclothes officers appeared, showed their badges and asked the comedian if he was carrying illegal drugs. André, who says he was the only black man he saw on the jet bridge, denied having drugs. Still, he said, officers continued to question him.

“There are all these people having to squeeze past us on this narrow, awkward jet bridge while I look like this suspect author,” André told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “And I did absolutely nothing wrong. I literally just got back from a work trip.

Officers eventually let Andre board the plane, but he said the encounter left him feeling terrible. “It was demoralizing, dehumanizing, racist and traumatic,he said.

It turns out that Andre wasn’t the only one who was stopped on a jet bridge at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and questioned about drugs. About six months earlier, the same thing happened to Clayton English, another comedian who is also black and says he too was racially profiled and humiliated by Clayton County police.

On Tuesday, the two comedians filed a lawsuit against the police department and the Clayton County prosecutor’s office, alleging the agencies violated their constitutional rights. He asks the court to declare unconstitutional a practice by the Clayton County Police Department that the lawsuit says involves officers stopping passengers on jet bridges, questioning them and even searching their bags in an alleged effort to combat the drug trafficking, while describing the arrests as “consensual”.

The lawsuit argues that in reality the judgments are not consensual. Instead, officers coerce passengers into cooperating, according to the lawsuit, and they disproportionately target black passengers. More than half of those arrested over an eight-month period were black, although only 8% of US airline passengers were black, according to the lawsuit.

Although officers seize very few illegal drugs, they sometimes end up seizing money through asset forfeitures — money that passengers who may never face charges often don’t get back. not, according to the lawsuit.

Clayton County police intercept people on jet bridges because they are “aware of the already deeply coercive nature of airport law enforcement encounters generally,” the lawsuit says, noting that efore passengers arrive at the bridge, they are required to comply with numerous security measures to get to their flights.

After Andre spoke about his experience in April 2021, the Clayton County Police Department said in a statement that the comedian “chosen to speak to investigators when first met,” offered his travel plans and consented to a search of his luggage, which the officers ultimately did not execute.

André retorts that the circumstances made him feel he had no choice.

A spokeswoman for the Clayton County Police Department said Tuesday the department had “no comment on pending litigation at this time.” The Clayton County prosecutor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening.

English alleges he found himself in an almost identical situation on a jet bridge at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in October 2020, while boarding a flight to Los Angeles. As he walked down the deck toward the plane, two plainclothes officers appeared, showed their badges and asked English if he was carrying cocaine, methamphetamine or any other illegal drugs, the lawsuit says. Officers searched his bag, he said.

“I felt completely helpless, I felt violated, I felt cornered, I felt like I couldn’t… keep getting on the plane – I felt like I had to comply if I wanted everything to go well,” English said at a press conference. conference on Tuesday, alongside André and their lawyers.

The lawsuit notes that other passengers “watched” English as officers questioned him about his travel plans and inspected his identification documents and plane tickets. English told reporters on Tuesday that he eventually boarded the flight, but for the next 3.5 hours he “waited for the other shoe to drop” and wondered if he would be arrested when he landed. the plane.

English said he reached out to Andre after Andre tweeted about his April 2021 experience. “I think we’re here because a lot of people have probably been through this and feel like…they just have to let things happen to them,” said English on Tuesday. “I think we’re here to speak for these people.”

From Aug. 30, 2020, to April 30, 2021, the Clayton County Police Department made 402 jet bridge stops, according to the lawsuit, citing department records. During that time, according to the lawsuit, officers found less than 0.08 pounds of illegal drugs and six prescription pills for which the passengers did not have a prescription, while the department only prosecuted two passengers.

Meanwhile, according to the lawsuit, records show officers seized more than $1 million in cash from passengers via asset forfeitures, allowing law enforcement to seize property they suspected of having been used in a crime. People usually have to make legal offers to get that property back.

“These seizures do not significantly combat drug trafficking, but they do provide a financial windfall for the department by taking advantage of permissive civil standards for asset forfeitures and the reluctance of individuals (especially people of color) to challenge the seizures,” the lawsuit states. .

The policy also traumatizes passengers, said Annie Hudson-Price, an attorney with New York University’s Policing Project, which helped file the lawsuit.

“It’s not just a one-time encounter,” she said. It’s “the kind of thing that lingers with you – and it haunts you”.