Eric André, Clayton English sue Atlanta area county for discrimination

The two comedians claim that Clayton County Police use racial profiling and forceful stops in Hartfield-Jackson International Airport jet bridges.

Comedians Eric André and Clayton English are suing a county in Georgia for discrimination. They claim that police in Clayton County, which is part of Atlanta’s metropolitan area, use racial profiling and forceful stops in the jet bridges at Hartfield-Jackson International Airport.

According to a press release, the federal lawsuit, filed Tuesday, claims the Clayton County Police Department (“CCPD”) allegedly violated the Black men’s Fourth and 14th Amendments rights by subjecting them to profiling and illegal stops in nearly identical circumstances about six months apart.

André’s incident occurred as he left Atlanta for Los Angeles on April 21, 2021. Two Clayton County police officers stopped him as he entered the jet bridge to board the aircraft and immediately asked whether he was carrying any illegal narcotics. He was permitted to board his flight after five minutes of inquiry and examination of his ticket and identification.

Eric André and Clayton English Sues Clayton County Police Department
Comic actors Eric André and Clayton English are suing Clayton County for discrimination after being “randomly selected” for stops in the jet bridges at Hartfield-Jackson International Airport. (Photo: The Policing Project at NYU School of Law)

“I was blocked in a jet bridge by two police officers who interrogated me about drugs,” André said in a statement. “I didn’t see any other Black people boarding at the time. It’s hard to believe I was selected at ‘random’ for questioning. It was a humiliating and degrading experience.”

The journey from Atlanta to Los Angeles on Oct. 30, 2020, was quite similar for English, although the press release failed to provide additional details.

The CCPD has defended its officers’ actions and claims the stops are “consensual encounters.” They allegedly inform the individuals that they select them at “random.” 

“By ambushing passengers in this manner, the Unit’s officers compound the enormous, preexisting compulsion to cooperate with airport law enforcement by exploiting the passengers’ fear they will create an untoward scene or will appear guilty, subversive, or dangerous to their fellow passengers,” the lawsuit alleges, according to the press release.

André and English want the federal court to declare the CCPD’s jet bridge stop program at the Atlanta airport unconstitutional. Pro bono attorneys from the law firms Jones Day and Lawrence & Bundy, along with the Policing Project at NYU School of Law, are representing them.

The Policing Project discovered through the Open Records Act that 56 percent of passengers stopped by CCPD in Atlanta airport jet bridges in the eight months before André whose races were recorded were Black. Eight percent of American airline passengers are Black overall, so there is a less than one in 100 trillion chance that it “randomly” selected Black passengers.

“By design, all of these factors exert tremendous coercive pressure on an individual passenger on the jet bridge to acquiesce to the officers’ wishes,” the lawsuit notes. “Those pressures are even greater for persons of color, given the history of racial profiling by airport security officers.”

According to the open records request, the airport jet bridge stops are ineffectual at seizing drugs or apprehending drug smugglers, but are a successful civil asset forfeiture operation that takes cash from travelers on the off chance it has any connection to criminal activity.

The CCPD conducted 402 stops in the eight months before they searched André; only two led to charges. One passenger was traveling with 10 grams of marijuana and mushrooms, the other with six prescription pills for which no valid prescription allegedly existed. 

During that same time, authorities detained people never charged with anything and confiscated about $1 million in cash and money orders.

“These are cases of flying while Black, plain and simple,” Barry Friedman, co-founder of the Policing Project, said in a statement. “Every day in America, people of color are unjustly stopped on the pretense that these encounters are consensual. It is humiliating, it is deeply inappropriate, it is unconstitutional, and it must stop.”

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