Saturday, October 21, 2017

On freedom from unwarranted search and seizure while traveling

Back in the dim, distant days when I started this blog (2005!) I wrote a lot about the TSA and government watch lists. (After all, the E.P. and I were told we were on the no fly list for awhile, enough to offer a chance for the ACLU to try to find out what the government was up to.) This topic has been less a priority lately, but given everything else, it is not too surprising that it seems once again current.

We've all learned a lot since those days; there's an excellent, thorough, book on the history of the U.S. government using our desire to travel to constrain and control citizens they take to be troublemakers. (The picture is of Mrs. Ruth Shipley who did the dirty work for Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and FBI chief J.Edgar Hoover in the 1950s.)

Once again, the ACLU has taken up a "freedom to travel" case, this one of what seems a novel sort because it involves involuntary (short) detention of people who have not only passed through all the security theater that dominates our airports, but also have already completed their journey.

On February 22, 2017, Delta Airlines Flight 1583 departed San Francisco and headed for John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. As the plane was landing, passengers heard a strange announcement.

Speaking over the intercom, a flight attendant announced that everyone would have to show their documents in order to get off the plane. After passengers expressed their consternation, the flight attendant repeated her announcement, stating that officers would be meeting the plane and every passenger would have to show government-issued ID to deplane.

... the government does not have this authority. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires government agents to have individualized suspicion to conduct even a brief investigatory stop. Despite this, two Customs and Border Protection agents met Flight 1583 and stood immediately outside the aircraft door, blocking the exit into the jetway. The officers wore uniforms emblazoned with the words, “POLICE/CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION,” and carried guns visible in their holsters.

Passengers were naturally intimidated; some interactions with these apparent Homeland Security spooks seemed racially tinged to some passengers.

The ACLU's filing contains other notable details:

Despite the focus on the identification documents, DOE 1 and DOE 2 [officers] carried no clipboard, photograph, or list of names and did not appear to check the passengers’ identification against any list.

.... Plaintiffs did not consent to any search or seizure as they were attempting to deplane Flight 1583. Instead, they understood from the circumstances, as set forth above, that the stop and search was mandatory and that they were not free to deplane without submitting to the officers. The coercive circumstances included the announcements made by the flight crew at CBP’s direction, the presence of two large armed CBP officers obstructing the only means of egress from the plane, and the words and actions of those officers, as described above.

I recognize that last condition. When we were stopped at the San Francisco airport in 2002, we were surrounded by three urgently summoned police officers who told us that, "no" -- we might not go get a drink of water until they figured out what to do with us.

Liberty survives when people speak up against government infringements on our freedoms. It will likely be a long haul, but props to these plaintiffs for stepping up to the fight.

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