Search and Seizure

Article excerpt

Are U.S. Customs Service agents violating the rights of African American travelers?

Karra Duncan, a 25-year-old California resident, dreamed of seeing the Eiffel Tower. Late last year, she learned U.S. Airways was offering round-trip flights from Philadelphia to Paris for less than $300. So, on December 24, with a backpack and a small tote bag, she set off for a whirlwind visit to the city of her dreams.

Three days later, Duncan returned home to begin another journey--a nightmarish five-hour ordeal, courtesy of four U.S. Customs Service inspectors. During this time, she was repeatedly questioned and patted down in a bare, windowless room, then handcuffed and transported to a hospital, where she was X-rayed. Customs agents never told her why they had detained her, but the shortness of her trip and her lack of luggage matched some of the factors inspectors use to ferret out travelers who could be carrying drugs. Duncan is also African American.

As similar incidents have surfaced in the past few years, the Customs Service has tried to deflect accusations that a higher number of minorities than other travelers are subjected to degrading airport searches for drugs. Following high-intensity media scrutiny--in particular, reporter Renee Ferguson of Chicago's WMAQ-TV has cited the disproportionate number of African American women searched at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport--Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun called for the General Accounting Office to investigate customs practices. Eight months later, there are still no study results.

Legal wheels, however, are in motion. Chicago attorney Edward Fox says he represents about 90 African American women--most of whom went through O'Hare--who allege their civil rights were violated by customs agents.

Meanwhile, the Customs Service maintains its innocence against charges it profiles travelers by race and gender. …