Federal Judge Allows Racial Profiling Lawsuit to Move Forward

April 01, 2014

DETROIT – An Ohio mother of two who was unlawfully arrested, detained and strip-searched because of her ethnicity on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 will be able to move forward with her lawsuit against Detroit Metro Airport officials and federal authorities, a federal judge ruled late last night.

“This opinion sends a strong message to law enforcement that race and ethnicity are not synonymous with suspicious activity,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan legal director. “Even on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the police cannot take an innocent American off a plane at gunpoint, throw her in a jail cell for four hours and subject her to a humiliating strip search.”

On Sept. 11, 2011, Shoshana Hebshi was traveling to Detroit Metro Airport after visiting her sister in California. On the flight, she was seated next to two men of South Asian descent, who she did not know. When the plane landed, armed agents boarded the flight and Hebshi and the two men were handcuffed and ordered off the flight at gunpoint. Officers refused to explain the arrest and Hebshi did not know when she would be able to call her family.

While in the cell, a crying Hebshi was ordered to strip naked and squat and cough as an officer looked on. The officer than looked in Hebshi’s mouth, lifted her eyelids and searched her hair. She was released four hours later after being interrogated.

“I was frightened and humiliated, and my rights were clearly violated solely because of my ethnicity,” said Hebshi, a freelance journalist who lives in Sylvania, Ohio, with her husband and twin boys. “As an American citizen and a mom, I’m really concerned about my children growing up in a country where your skin color and name can put your freedom and liberty at risk at any time. This kind of discrimination should not be tolerated.”

Through public records, the ACLU discovered that Hebshi was removed from the flight because she was seated next to the men and because of her ethnic name. Shoshana’s mother is Jewish and her late father emigrated from Saudi Arabia to the United States. A small number of passengers noticed the two men go to the bathroom in succession and complained to the flight crew. The two men were cleared of any wrongdoing and were also released from custody later that evening.

Hebshi’s lawsuit claims that Wayne County Airport authority officials and federal law enforcement agents denied her equal protection under the law by treating her differently than other passengers because of her ethnic name and appearance. The airport authority and federal agencies had asked Judge Terrence G. Berg to dismiss this claim because reasonable officers would have acted in the same manner. Judge Berg rejected that argument stating that Hebshi “adequately alleges that [she] was arrested and detained because of her race, ethnicity, or national origin, and that there was no legal justification for either her arrest or her detention.”

"Law enforcement and government officials do not have free rein to target people who are going about their business simply because of their race or ethnicity,” said Rachel Goodman, a staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program.

The lawsuit was originally filed in January 2013 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against Frontier Airlines as well as officials with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Wayne County Airport Authority, Detroit Metro Airport Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).

Hebshi is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Michigan, the Detroit law firm of Goodman & Hurwitz, and the Washington, D.C., office of the law firm of Covington & Burling. Sarah Tremont of Covington & Burling argued the motion.

Read the judge’s order

Read more about the lawsuit, including the complaint

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