Lawsuit challenges TSA `no-fly' lists

Class action seeks to force effective grievance system for misidentified travelers

April 07, 2004|By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Seven people, including an Air Force sergeant and a retired minister, sued the government yesterday, saying that they had been wrongly placed on "no-fly" lists and subjected to humiliating interrogation and intrusive searches at airports.

The class action suit, filed in Seattle by the American Civil Liberties Union, seeks to force the federal Transportation Security Administration to develop an effective grievance system for people mistakenly singled out in anti-terrorism screenings.

"Our clients are completely innocent of any wrongdoing and possess no affiliation with terrorists or criminal activity," ACLU lead attorney Reginald Shuford said at a news conference. "Worst of all, beyond the stigma, there is no way at all to clear one's name from the no-fly list once placed on it."

Plaintiff John F. Shaw, a retired Presbyterian minister from Sammamish, Wash., said he had been repeatedly questioned, delayed and searched since 2002. "As a law-abiding citizen who is a retired member of the clergy, I was shocked to discover that I have been placed on the no-fly list," Shaw said in a statement.

TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield declined to comment on the specific allegations but said most problems involve cases of mistaken identity. "You have aggravating inconvenience being dished out to people who are being misidentified," Hatfield said.

He blamed the current system of verifying passengers' identities, calling it "very limited and arguably obsolete."

Cases of mistaken identity should drop significantly under a new computerized passenger-profiling system the government is creating, he said. But critics fear it will also be flawed.

ACLU lawyers said they hoped the lawsuit would lead to greater accountability and some disclosure of the inner workings of a secretive system that may have flagged "hundreds, if not thousands" of innocent people.

The lawsuit, which names Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and TSA Director David M. Stone as defendants, alleges violations of the constitutional guarantees of due process and protection from unreasonable search and seizure. Two of the plaintiffs are ACLU employees.

Government agencies maintain several security lists containing thousands of names and dozens of pages. The TSA has two main lists that are shared with airlines and other law enforcement agencies. People on the no-fly list are not supposed to be allowed to board, while those on a separate "selectee" list are supposed to be carefully searched.

If an innocent passenger's name matches that of a suspect on the no-fly list, the conflict must be resolved before that person is allowed to board, Hatfield said.

Air Force Master Sgt. Michelle D. Green, 36, was surprised this year to discover her name was on the list. Based in Alaska, Green went to the Fairbanks Airport on Jan. 2 to catch a flight to Seattle related to her job with a medical unit, according to court papers.

The agent at the ticket counter told her that there was a computer glitch and asked for her military orders, her birth date and other information. After waiting about 45 minutes, Green got her boarding pass. She shrugged off the incident.

But the next day, Green again was delayed at the ticket counter in Seattle as she checked in for a flight to Honolulu. The agent asked if she'd had problems before, and Green told him about the "computer glitch" the day before.

"The agent began laughing in full view of other passengers and explained that the reason I had been delayed was not due to a computer problem, but rather because I was on the no-fly list," Green said in a statement. "He indicated that I was likely to experience problems every time I flew."

On her return, the same thing happened. Green said she felt humiliated because of a "gross mistake" by the government. "I am not seeking monetary damages," she said, "but a fair and transparent process to remove my name from the no-fly list."

The TSA has an ombudsman's office that is supposed to help travelers resolve such problems by issuing a letter verifying the person's identity.

David C. Fathi, a lawyer with the ACLU's prison rights project, said he was issued such a letter after a run of problems. But they continued, and he said he had been threatened with arrest for protesting his innocence.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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