We’ve reported on several legal challenges to demands for ID as a condition of boarding airline flights.
But what about demands for ID after such a flight, as a condition of disembarking or leaving the airport at your destination? Is such a demand legal? Must you comply?
The first court case we are aware of to raise this issue began when DHS law enforcement officers from US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) blocked the only exit from a Delta Airlines plane when it arrived at its gate at JFK Airport in February 2017 after a flight from San Francisco, and required passengers to show ID before they were allowed to leave the plane.
Several passengers, represented by the ACLU, sued the DHS, the CBP and the responsible officials, supervisors, and front-officers in Federal court for the Eastern District of New York, which covers Brooklyn, Queens (where JFK Airport is located) and Long Island.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, originally Amadei v. Duke and now Amadei v. Neilsen, complain that the demand for ID violated their 4th Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. They also complain that the DHS policy or practice of demanding ID from some passengers disembarking from domestic airline flights was adopted without complying with the due process requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).
The first significant — although far from final — ruling in the case came on December 13, 2018. The District Court rejected government motions to dismiss the complaint. Judge Nicholas Garaufis found that the passengers had raised sufficiently credible allegations of violations of the 4th Amendment and the APA to entitle them to their day in court.
We don’t yet know what legal excuse the DHS and its officers will offer for these ID demands. Searches of disembarking passengers obviously aren’t related to stopping them from boarding with weapons, explosives, or other dangerous items. As warrantless, suspicionless searches for general law enforcement purposes, they have the same lack of legal basis as house-to-house searches or roadblocks, using the airplane exit door as an illegal checkpoint.
In response to questions shortly after the incident, official DHS spokespeople tried to reassure travelers that demands for ID from disembarking airline passengers are “routine”, happen “often”, and are “not a new policy”. One of the eventual defendants, the CBP Port Director for JFK, told one of the passengers in an e-mail message after the incident, “We do this every day.” Nothing to see here. Move along.
These statements contradicted and discredited the later claims by the DHS, in response to the lawsuit, that there was no evidence that demands for ID from disembarking domestic airline passengers were part of any systematic pattern or practice. The evidence of a pattern or practice was in the prior statements of the government’s official spokespeople.
Whether this is a (secret) policy, an unwritten but routine practice, or an isolated incident is, at a minimum, a factual dispute with respect to which the plaintiffs are entitled to discovery. The court has already admonished the government for failing to comply with discovery orders, and the latest order denies the government’s request for further delay in discovery, including with respect to policies for demanding ID from disembarking airline passengers.