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. “We don’t target or identify people based on their race. We select based on where they come from and what answers they give us. [drug dealers] are businesspeople and, because of that, we cannot pigeonhole our parameters. That would defeat our objectives,” explains Dennis Murphy, director of public affairs at the U.S. Customs Service in Washington, D.C. However, last December, Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly conceded that “searches can get pretty traumatic” and ordered new training for inspectors.
Customs is also experimenting with advanced imaging technology. At New York City’s JFK and at Miami International Airport, body scan devices are an option to strip searches or pat downs, although not every detainee is provided this alternative.
The core of the controversy revolves around whether customs searches violate people’s constitutional rights. While the Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable search and seizure, the courts allow a law enforcement agent who has “reasonable suspicion” of criminality but not probable cause enough leeway to stop a person and conduct a limited pat down. There isn’t a clear formula for determining which passengers meet the profile. A customs handbook lists about 40 characteristics, a combination of which can lead to reasonable suspicion.
Although Murphy says customs inspectors need to justify a personal search and gain approval from a supervisor, thousands of travelers are subjected to this treatment every year. According