The US government has paid $40,000 as part of the settlement of a lawsuit by a traveler who was falsely arrested by Federal agents and local police when a Frontier Airlines flight she was on arrived at the Detroit airport in 2011, arrive, taken off the plane in handcuffs, locked in a cell for four hours, and strip searched (in a cell with a video camera).
All of this happened without probable cause for an arrest, before any attempt was made to question her, and before any attempt was made by any of the police, airline, airport, or TSA staff to determine whether there was any basis for any of their actions. No criminal or administrative charges were ever filed against her.
The traveler, Ms. Shoshana Hebshi, sued the Federal government, the airline, and named and unknown Federal law enforcement agents, TSA employees, and Wayne County Airport Authority police.
Ms. Hebshi’s lawsuit was dismissed earlier this week on the basis of a settlement, after the Federal judge hearing the case rejected the defendants’ claims of “qualified immunity” with respect to Ms. Hebshi’s complaints of both discrimination and false arrest. “There is no ‘suspected terrorist activity exception’ to the probable cause requirement of the Fourth Amendment,” the judge had ruled.
No specific Federal agency or individual took responsibility. The lawsuit named “the United States of America” as a defendant, rather than any specific Federal agency or agencies, and multiple Federal agencies (TSA, FBI, ICE, CBP, etc.) were named in the complaint as having been involved in mistreating Ms. Hebshi. We don’t know whether others of the defendants (the airport, the airline, or any of the individual defendants) paid money to Ms. Hebshi as part of the settlement, in additional to the $40K from the US Treasury.
The dollar value of the settlement is obviously inadequate to deter similar misconduct by government, airline, and airport personnel in the future. But we are pleased by several aspects of the preliminary rulings by US District Court Judge Terrence G. Berg which led to the settlement.
First, Judge Berg was willing to let the case against the airline, airport, and Federal government, and their employees, go to trial. We’ve talked before about how difficult it can be to overcome claims of “qualified immunity” if the court’s sympathies lean toward the defendants in a case like this — or, to put it another way, how easy it is for a judge to let government defendants and their private accomplices off the hook.