WASHINGTON — Caught in the fierce controversy over "racial profiling," the U.S. Customs Service is imposing new limits on its screening of airline passengers to intercept illicit drug shipments.
Customs Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said Wednesday that the agency, which seeks to catch contraband entering the country, no longer will detain airline travelers suspected of smuggling narcotics for more than four hours without specific approval of a federal magistrate.
It also will require Customs officers to notify an attorney or friend of the passenger, if asked to do so, when the traveler is detained for more than two hours. In cases where no drugs are found, the agency will help travelers to resume their journeys when their trips have been disrupted.
The changes come as the Customs Service is facing at least a dozen lawsuits filed by angry passengers, including a class-action suit in Chicago on behalf of 100 black women who claim that they were singled out and searched because of their race and gender.
Customs officials conducted searches of more than 50,000 international travelers, from pat-downs to strip searches, in fiscal 1998, the service said.
Top Customs officials are vowing to base such searches on concrete evidence or specific intelligence, rather than singling out people based on race and appearance. Experience shows that certain flights from certain foreign countries carry a higher risk of smugglers, they said.
The new measures mark "a sharp departure from past practice and represent a self-imposed restraint on Customs search authority, which federal courts have always liberally upheld," Kelly said.
The Supreme Court, in fact, has ruled that Customs officers at airports and border crossings do not need the probable cause or warrants that police need to conduct searches. Customs agents can perform a strip search based on "reasonable suspicion" that someone might be hiding something illegal, the justices have held.
But Kelly, a former New York police commissioner, said: "We believe that we can catch drug smugglers without unduly jeopardizing personal dignity and individual rights."
Under the new rules, effective Oct. 1, Customs would have to convince a federal magistrate that it had "reasonable suspicion" for keeping a passenger in custody beyond four hours. If the magistrate did not go along, the passenger would be released.
The American Civil Liberties Union called the move a step in the right direction. But it said that the reasonable-suspicion standard is relatively easy to meet and may not be sufficient to "protect people from abusive or discriminatory searches," according to legislative counsel Gregory Nojeim.
The ACLU said it would have preferred a tougher "probable cause" standard that a crime had been committed.
In recent weeks, the Customs Service also has made government attorneys available on a 24-hour basis to advise its officers before intensive searches are conducted, and it is installing new equipment at major airports that will help keep body searches at a minimum.
Kelly, who took office a year ago, has set up an independent review panel to evaluate complaints of bias from searched air travelers. The three-member panel, which includes a white, a Latina and a black, is scheduled to report its findings and recommendations this fall.
Creation of the panel has won praise from Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights leader of the 1960s, who has called for an investigation of racial profiling. Lewis, however, said recently that more needs to be done to eliminate bias in law enforcement, which he said has caused anger across the country.
In June, President Clinton ordered federal law enforcement officers, including Customs agents, to document the race and gender of those they arrest or detain, so the statistics can be used to determine if certain groups appear to be targeted. Customs officials said they began recording such statistics in May.
The greatest single impetus to Customs Service reform efforts was the class-action complaint filed last year by the black women in Chicago.
One plaintiff, Gwendolyn Richards, who arrived at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport from abroad, said that during a five-hour ordeal "I was humiliated. I couldn't believe it was happening."
Richards said she was strip-searched, X-rayed and forced to remove her underwear for a pelvic exam by a female agent. "They had no reason to think I had drugs."
Customs officials said that tough tactics are necessary to catch the growing number of smugglers who swallow cocaine-filled balloons, insert packages of heroin into body cavities or hide drugs in a hollow leg or by feigning pregnancy.
Of 2,957 pounds of heroin seized by Customs last year, 64% was found inside the bodies or in the clothes and luggage of airline passengers.
Kelly said that an extensive new training program began earlier this year for inspectors at airports. It involves "both what to look for but also how to handle people--cultural diversity training."
In some cases, travelers have been given the option of submitting to an X-ray in lieu of a body search, officials said. The agency has requested $9 million in its next annual budget, starting Oct. 1, for installation of on-site X-rays at major airports, including Los Angeles International Airport.
In the past, some detainees have been taken to hospitals for X-rays if they are suspected of swallowing sealed packages of narcotics.