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Passengers Win: Feds to End Suspicionless ID Checks on U.S. Flights

a man (from the neck down) in handcuffs in front of an airplane
By Andrew Leonatti on July 19, 2019

Our Fourth Amendment rights keep us free from unreasonable detention and search and seizure. Early in the Trump Administration, when the country’s collective anxiety was running high over travel bans and immigration crackdowns, some U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers apparently got a little ahead of themselves and forgot about these rights.

A tweet went viral on Feb. 22, 2017, showing CBP officers refusing to let passengers on a San Francisco to New York flight get off the plane without submitting to an identification check. The news of a customs checkpoint on a domestic flight was unprecedented.

In the confusion that followed, many passengers knew that something about the situation wasn’t right. Ultimately, nine passengers on that Delta flight teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union and powerhouse law firm Covington & Burling to sue the federal government on Fourth Amendment grounds

Settlement Will End the Questionable Practice

Last week, the ACLU announced they had reached a settlement with the CBP that will put a halt to suspicionless checks on domestic flights. The agency will put out a policy directive to officers notifying them that these checks are not to occur in a way that violates passengers’ Fourth Amendment rights.  

The settlement also notes that CBP officers cannot physically block passengers from exiting a plane. They must also “ensure that their words and actions communicate that passenger cooperation is voluntary. If a passenger asks, officers should communicate that passengers who decline to cooperate will not suffer any enforcement consequence as a result.”

Passengers Stand Up for the Fourth Amendment

Lawyers for the ACLU remind us that a passenger on a domestic flight has the same protections as anyone else in this country. That means officers cannot detain you without probable cause, and they cannot search and seize your property without a search warrant, whether you are getting off a domestic flight, walking down the street, or sitting in your house.

“I felt in the moment like I had no choice but to comply with this police-state tactic,” one of the passengers said. “But one of the great things about this country is that we have protections, and when those protections are violated, we can speak up.”

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