Creative Commons-licensed photo by cliff1066™

On the ten year anniversary of the September 11th attacks, an Ohio mother was flying on a Frontier Airlines flight from San Francisco to Detroit. The plane landed and heavily armed agents boarded the plane and removed her. She was handcuffed, pat searched and then strip searched and locked in a cell at the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. There she was interrogated and then released with no charges after being detained for four hours. She has now filed suit against Frontier Airlines and government agents and officers involved in arresting and detaining her without probable cause.

In a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), it describes how Shoshana Hebshi is an American citizen, who was born in California. Because she has an “Arab last name and was seated next to two men of South Asian origin, who each allegedly used the lavatory for ten to twenty minutes during the flight,” Frontier Airlines staff provided her name to both federal and state authorities when reporting the “suspicious conduct” of the two men sitting next to her. Mark Fraley, Frontier Airlines Sector Operations Control Shift Manager, provided the names of the men engaged in “suspicious conduct” and added Hebshi’s name because he thought she might be with the two men.

Heshi did not know the two men and there was no evidence to suggest that she did. That did not matter. As the complaint argues, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Wayne County Airport Authority Police, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), arrested her even though they had “no articulable facts” connecting her to “criminal activity” and no probable cause. (Both South Asian men were arrested as well.)

She was taken to a cell, left in handcuffs and told she’d be subjected to a strip search. Toya Parker, a Wayne County Airport Authority police officer, instructed Hebshi to “remove all her clothing, including her underwear and bra, so that she was completely naked.” Hebshi was then instructed to “stand facing the wall, away from the video camera, so that at least part of her body would be concealed.” Then she was instructed by Parker to “bend over, spread her buttocks, and cough while Officer Parker stood a couple of feet away and watched.”

The humiliating search continued as Officer Parker had Hebshi “take her hair down from its ponytail” so she could “feel through” it. Officer Parker then “lifted” her eyelids and looked in her mouth before Hebshi was finally allowed to put her clothes back on.

The complaint indicates that the standard operating procedure for the Wayne County Airport Authority is the following:

A person shall not be strip searched unless the person is being lodged into a detention facility, by order of a court or there is reasonable cause to believe that the person is concealing a weapon, controlled substance, or evidence of a crime.

According to the ACLU, there was no evidence to suggest she was “concealing a weapon, a controlled substance, or any other evidence of a crime that might justify a strip search. The decision to strip search Ms. Hebshi was made with no articulable facts connecting Ms. Hebshi to criminal activity or providing probable cause.” Worse, “one hour passed before a female officer came to perform the strip search. During the hour, no evidence emerged to suggest that Ms. Hebshi was involved in criminal activity, carrying contraband, or otherwise had done anything that would provide reasonable suspicion or probable cause justifying a strip search.”

Hebshi and the two South Asian men were eventually freed.

The lawsuit is being brought to challenge the “discriminatory conduct of Frontier airlines, which she believes “identified her as a ‘suspicious’ passenger based on her ethnicity, race or national origin.” It is being filed to “challenge the unlawful arrest, detention, and trip search she endured at the hands of agents of Wayne County Airport Authority Police, the FBI, the TSA, ICE, and CBP, who violated her right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.” And it accuses agents or officers of violating her right to equal protection of the laws.

Additionally, the suit alleges those who arrested and detained her violated the Federal Tort Claims Act by falsely arresting and imprisoning her.

Hebshi penned a blog post for the ACLU, where she describes how she was “scared and alone” in a “dirty cell” and “can’t begin to describe the humiliation” she experienced:

…No one would tell me what was going on despite my repeated requests for information. No one told me of my rights or when I would be able to call my family who had no idea where I was. You can imagine this was very difficult for them as the last time they heard from me was when I hung up the phone with my husband in Ohio saying that stairs were coming and I thought I’d be home soon. I was in the dark about why I was being held until I was interrogated by an FBI agent. Though it still didn’t make sense, I deduced that it was because of my proximity to the men who apparently got up to go to the bathroom a few times during the flight…

Right after the incident, she published a stirring and eloquent account of what happened to her, where she characterized what she was subjected to as “some real shock and awe.” Her post noted that an FBI agent had apologized to her, thanked her for “understanding and cooperating. He also said, “It’s 9/11 and people are seeing ghosts. They are seeing things that aren’t there.” And, “they had to act on a report of suspicious behavior, and this is what the reaction looks like.” In fact, “50 other similar incidents across the country” had occurred that day.

Those who are victims of civil liberties violations—those who have their dignity trampled upon—must at least make the government go through the motions of having to defend its senseless acts. Hebshi understands that this case is not just about her but also about others who have experienced the horrors of racial profiling. If people like Hebshi do not attempt to show the agents and officers are wrong when incidents like this happen, this type of conduct becomes acceptable. They figure they have the power to violate whomever they choose and, if they make a mistake, they can just apologize and everything will be okay for them. They never have to think twice about dehumanizing people without any evidence or probable cause. And that is why lawsuits like Hebshi’s are critical, especially in the post-9/11 new normal of which all US citizens can be subjected at any time.