Airport Harassment

By Russel, Dale; Larcom, Mindy | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, September/October 2000 | Go to article overview

Airport Harassment


Russel, Dale, Larcom, Mindy, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


Whistleblower reveals abusive passenger treatment by U.S. Customs

We met the whistleblower in a lawyer's office. She was a veteran U.S. Customs inspector with a story she was dying to tell. In fact, for more than had been telling her story to anyone who would listen. She had filed complaints inside Customs, written to a congressman and talked to other reporters and lawyers. She felt like no one was listening. By the time we turned on the camera, she was ready to explode, talking non-stop, barely taking time to breathe. She was hoping someone would finally take the time to listen. For more than two hours, we did.

She claimed that when searching for drug smugglers at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport, her fellow Customs inspectors were systematically singling out African-American passengers for intrusive body searches. She told us about pat downs and strip searches, even trips to a nearby hospital for X-rays. According to the tipster, passengers were treated like criminals, like they were guilty of smuggling drugs. The problem was, she said, the inspectors rarely, if ever, found drugs.

It was a compelling tale, but we were skeptical. How would we prove any of this? We were dealing with a federal agency operating in a secure area of the airport. We couldn't very well do surveillance. It would take months to get the records and we had no passengers complaining about mistreatment. Still, our gut instinct told us this was worth pursuing.

It turned into a six-month long investigation, nine stories, congressional hearings, and sweeping, nationwide changes at U.S. Customs.

And it all began with the pleas of an inspector (pictured at left) who insisted: "They are just plain and simply harassing black travelers. They treat the people as if they are guilty. They just treat them really abusive. I mean they treat them like they robbed the store or something. And the only thing they did was travel."

Border searches

During our preliminary research, we found very little written on the issue of Customs and profiling, but we did see excellent stories done by a Chicago TV station, in which AfricanAmerican women claimed they were strip searched by Customs inspectors solely because they were black. We wondered if the experiences of a handful of women in Chicago could be indicative of the entire system. We decided to try to answer that question statistically. We needed to see if our whistleblower's perceptions stood up to scrutiny. We needed to build a statistical case so strong that Customs would have to respond to the allegations.

Before understanding the statistics, we needed to understand the rules Customs inspectors have to follow when they search for drug smugglers entering the country through international airports.

We learned inspectors have very broad powers that date back to the Tariff Act of 1930 and have been consistently backed up by court decisions. The Supreme Court (United States v. Ramsey) found "border searches ... have been considered to be `reasonable' by the single fact that the person or item in question had entered into our country from outside."

In short, border searches are an exception to the probable cause and warrant requirements of the Fourth Amendment. Though the courts have held that those searches must be reasonable, Customs inspectors have tremendous leeway in deciding who to stop, pat down or strip search. In fact, inspectors have the authority to handcuff passengers and take them to a hospital for X-rays or monitored bowel movements.

It is not an easy job. Inspectors, on the lookout for smuggled drugs, have a number of tools they can use to identify smugglers. They use law enforcement intelligence, study flight plans, check how tickets are paid for and look for any suspicious behavior of passengers as they travel through the international concourse.

So who do they target during these "needle-- in-a-haystack" searches? …

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