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Appellate Court Allows Muslim Family to Sue After Intrusive Airport Search

January 4, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
A China Airlines cargo jet lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Saturday, March 14, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

WASHINGTON — The federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., late last month revived the chances for a successful lawsuit by a family that claims they were unjustifiably placed on a terrorist watch list while traveling to Jordan.

Mohammed Jibril, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Jordan, says in his lawsuit that his wife and five children were making a religious trip from their home in California in 2018 when their boarding passes were stamped with “SSSS.”

The initials stand for Secondary Screening Security Selection. It is a signal for Transportation Security Administration agents to thoroughly search the passengers and their baggage because of suspicions about their links to terrorists.

The entire family was separated, including a two-year-old child, and searched without a warrant, according to the lawsuit they filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The separation, searching and questioning continued for hours, they say in their original lawsuit filed two years ago. It was repeated on their return trip from Jordan, making them miss a connecting flight and delaying them by a day.

In addition, the federal agents failed to ask whether the children had medical issues or to give them food while they were detained.

The lawsuit names the Transportation Security Administration and the Homeland Security Department as defendants.

It alleges violations of the family’s Fourth Amendment right to privacy and a Fifth Amendment violation that deprived them of an opportunity to explain or exonerate themselves after being placed on the terrorist watch list.

U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth dismissed their lawsuit, saying the Jibrils did not prove they are likely to be subjected to further unwarranted searches.

“All plaintiffs claim to have traveled to Jordan every two to three years, yet only on one trip have they encountered these difficulties,” Lamberth wrote in his May 2020 opinion. “These statistics, without more, do not suggest that defendants will subject plaintiffs to these supposedly unlawful searches in the future.”

On appeal, the D.C. Circuit reversed the lower court’s ruling. The court said the Jibril family credibly argued they are possible targets for similar abuses again after being labeled with an association to the terrorist watch list.

The court’s opinion said that the treatment the family endured “went well beyond what typical travelers reasonably expect during airport screenings.”

“Because the Jibrils plausibly allege that they will travel again soon and that they will again endure the alleged illegalities, they have established an imminent threat of future injury,” wrote Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Harry T. Edwards.

The appellate court said the family can seek a court order in a new trial to prevent “future injury” from extensive searches while they travel. However, they cannot claim damages from the 2018 searches.

Tom can be reached at tom@thewellnews.com.

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