The comedians allege they were racially profiled by police at the Atlanta airport and questioned about drugs in separate encounters.
Comedians Eric André and Clayton English have filed a lawsuit against Clayton County following two separate incidents of alleged racial profiling and coercive searches at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
In the lawsuit filed by their lawyers in a Georgia federal court, the comedians allege that the constitutional rights protecting them against unreasonable searches, seizures and racial discrimination were violated while they were boarding their respective flights last year. The lawsuit names Clayton County, CCPD chief Kevin Roberts, CCDAO investigator Michael Hooks, and multiple CCPD officers. The officers named in the filing include Aimee Branham, Tony Griffin, Kevin Campbell, and C. Smith.
Both André and English claim officers singled them out during stops roughly six months apart because they are Black and grilled them about drugs as other passengers watched. English was stopped while flying from Atlanta to Los Angeles for work on Oct. 30, 2020, and André as he traveled to his home in Los Angeles on April 21, 2020.
The lawsuit says officers blocked English and André as they entered the jet bridge and asked if they were carrying illegal drugs. Both were asked to hand over their boarding passes and identification.
"I was blocked in a jet bridge by two police officers who interrogated me about drugs," André said in a press release. "I didn't see any other Black people boarding at the time. It's hard to believe I was selected at 'random' for questioning. It was a humiliating and degrading experience."
Clayton County police spokesperson Julia Isaac said the department doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Clayton County police intercept people on jet bridges because they are "aware of the already profoundly coercive nature of law enforcement encounters in the airport generally," the lawsuit alleges, noting that passengers are required to comply with numerous security measures before arriving at the bridge.
In addition to a jury trial, compensatory and punitive damages, and legal costs, the comedians ask that the court declare the Clayton County police's jet bridge interdiction program unconstitutional.
The lawsuit says that while the program states its purpose as fighting drug trafficking, drugs are rarely found, criminal charges seldom result, and seized cash provides a financial windfall for the police department. It details how, from Aug. 30, 2020 to April 30, 2021, the police made 402 jet bridge stops, of which 378 of those stops listed the passenger's race. Of those 378 passengers, 56% were Black. People of color accounted for 68% of total stops.
Officers rarely seize illegal drugs, with only three seizures counted in the 402 stops, but they sometimes end up seizing cash through asset forfeitures -- money that passengers who may never face charges often do not get back, according to the lawsuit.
André shared news of the lawsuit on his Instagram page. "Any black or brown people that have traveled the Atlanta airport that feel they've been racially harassed by the Clayton county police, please let us know," he captioned the post. He later shared a video of Send Help co-creator and star Jean Elie, facing a similar search by CCPD in 2020.
André previously spoke out about his experience with CCPD during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live in April 2021, where he discussed the incident in greater detail.
"I'm in the Atlanta Airport Delta Lounge drinking a piña colada, enjoying myself," André shared. "They swipe my ticket, I go to the gate, they're like, 'Hey, welcome aboard.' I'm down the little, narrow, awkward jet bridge. Two cops appear -- these two white cops -- on that little, awkward, narrow jet bridge and they whip out their badge, like, Hawaii Five-O style and they're like, 'Come with me.' And I'm, like, business class so I'm the only brown person there. So clearly they're, like, singling me out. It's, like, all white businessmen and then me."
At one point during the "crazy interrogation," André said, one of the officers asked if he was "transporting crystal meth to Los Angeles." At first, André thought the officers were TSA agents and only later learned they were from the Clayton County department. André declined to let them search his luggage, which was his right, a fact that he noted the department later distorted in their press release.
"I'm tweeting at everybody all angry the whole flight and I'm drinking vodka tonics and I'm just getting more drunk and angry," André said of how he felt once he finally boarded the flight.
André likened the tactics of the officers to the infamously biased stop-and-frisk program used in New York City, saying, "It wasn't Atlanta PD, it's, like, the neighboring, like, the more boring county next door, Clayton County. It's their police department. They're doing, like, old school Giuliani stop-and-frisk racial profiling. It happened to my other buddy who's a Black comedian too."
André and Kimmel also highlighted the wording of "consensual encounter" in the Clayton County department's statement.
In a Facebook post from April of last year, CCPD claimed that the comedian "chose to speak with investigators during the initial encounter," and "voluntarily consented" to a search of his luggage, which the officers did not ultimately carry out.
At a news conference outside Atlanta's federal courthouse on Tuesday, André said he felt a "moral calling" to file the lawsuit "so these practices can stop and these cops can be held accountable for this because it's unethical." He continued, saying, "I have the resources to bring national attention and international attention to this incident. It's not an isolated incident. If Black people don't speak up for each other, who will?"