May 2010 - Finding that a series of repeated stops and detentions at the U. S. border were "routine," a federal district court in Chicago has dismissed a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Illinois on behalf of ten United States citizens. The lawsuit, Rahman v. Chertoff, was filed in 2005, and sought to implement changes to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) and the policies of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to ensure that the ACLU's clients were no longer was subjected to detentions and harassment by federal officials when re-entering the United States. While the ACLU of Illinois is disappointed by the decision, the organization notes that conditions for the clients have changed in the years since the lawsuit was filed.
The lead plaintiff in the case, Akif Rahman of suburban Chicago, was detained and questioned by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials on multiple separate occasions as he re-entered the country after business or personal trips abroad, detentions lasting unreasonably lengthy times - up to six hours. On one occasion, Mr. Rahman was subjected to unnecessary excessive force during a body search, and painfully shackled to a chair for approximately three hours while isolated from his wife and children.
The U.S. citizens and their family members involved in the lawsuit had been stopped, questioned, abused and harassed at points of entry to the country each year because of flaws in the TSC process. During the course of the litigation, the ACLU of Illinois identified two major flaws in the system. The first flaw was the wrongful listing of innocent people, and "over-classifying" them as dangerous when they pose no real threat to our nation. The second problem resulted from mistakes in the database operated by the TSC cause many individuals to be "misidentified," and subject to terrorist screening for no reason whatsoever. As a result of these two problems, the ACLU plaintiffs in the lawsuit collectively were stopped and questioned on more than thirty (30) occasions, despite the fact that they are law abiding citizens, always cleared for re-entry to the U.S. after these recurring and punitive detentions.
In dismissing the case, Judge Ronald Guzman held that almost all of the disputed detentions were "routine," meaning that border guards needed no suspicion at all to undertake various intrusions such as pat-down frisks and handcuffing for a brief time. Further, the court held that where the stops were not routine, the detentions, questionings and handcuffing were justified by the placement of the individuals on the TSC's database - even when the alleged listing may have been a mistake.
Responding to the Judge's decision, the ACLU of Illinois noted that the litigation had proved largely successful for our named plaintiffs, most of whom no longer suffer long detentions and questioning when re-entering the country. The ACLU noted that for these individuals being part of the lawsuit had provided the relief they sought - namely, being able to travel abroad free from harassment upon return.
The ACLU also took note of changes in government policy since the litigation commenced in 2005. Specifically, in March of this year, the Obama Administration acknowledged to Congress that they now required a standard of "reasonable suspicion" before a name could be added to the TSC's database. This standard as enunciated marks a sharp departure from the policy of the previous Administration and creates a significant threshold for an individual being placed on the list.
The ACLU of Illinois is conferring with our co-counsel and clients regarding how to proceed.