Article8 Airplane Passenger Profiling

Shoshana Hebshi (Photo Courtesy ACLU)

A racial profiling lawsuit filed by an Ohio woman, who was removed from a plane at gunpoint, strip-searched and detained, has been settled, the American Civil Liberties Union announced this week.

“People do not forfeit their constitutional rights when they step onto an airplane,” said Rachel Goodman, an attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, in a statement. “This settlement sends that critical message, and will help protect future passengers from having to endure what went through.”

In January 2013, the ACLU filed the complaint against Frontier Airlines and several government defendants on behalf of Shoshana Hebshi, a woman of Saudi Arabian and Jewish descent, who they say was targeted at Detroit Metropolitan Airport because of her Middle Eastern name and appearance.

The mother of two was never accused of any crime, the ACLU said; and a federal judge, in March and July 2014, denied attempts to squash Hebshi’s equal protection and illegal search and seizure claims.

“Under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, a full-custodial arrest, and a warrantless strip-search of a person in temporary detention, are unreasonable in the absence of probable cause,” wrote Judge Terrence Berg in his opinion. “As of yet, there is no ‘suspected terrorist activity exception’ to the probable cause requirement of the Fourth Amendment. The Court declines to sacrifice these principles of liberty to the cause of hyper-vigilance.”

According to the lawsuit, Hebshi was traveling home to Ohio on Sept. 11, 2011, after visiting her sister in California. She was seated next to two men, strangers of South Asian descent, who apparently alarmed fellow passengers and flight attendants by the amount of time they spent in the restroom. Hebshi never spoke to the men nor moved from her seat during the flight. Within moments of the plane’s landing, armed law enforcement agents boarded the plane and arrested all three of them. For several hours, Hebshi was detained in a jail cell and also subjected to a humiliating strip search.

All three detainees were later released without charge.

“I filed this lawsuit because I didn’t want others to experience the kind of unnecessary trauma that I did, and it has given me faith that the justice system can work to protect constitutional rights,” said Hebshi. “This settlement gives me some peace of mind. Now, I feel like I can finally put the incident behind me.”

Under the settlement, Hebshi will receive $40,000 from the federal government to compensate her for the severe humiliation she suffered. Additionally, Frontier has agreed to amend its employee handbook to more clearly state its zero-tolerance policy on discrimination and to provide all new employees with appropriate training. Frontier also will amend its customer complaint policy to ensure allegations of discrimination are given the appropriate attention.

The federal government provided sworn statements promising that this incident did not land Hebshi on any federal terrorism watch lists. The airport police have similarly provided assurances that no record of the arrest remains.

During the course of litigation, the Wayne County Airport Authority independently implemented changes to its police policies and training that address many of Hebshi’s concerns.