Phoenix is Suing U.S. Customs in a Strategy to Win an Airport-Arrest Lawsuit

A rowdy fight between airport authorities and a family arriving from a Mexican vacation in 2016 has resulted in a lawsuit filed last week between the city of Phoenix and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
A rowdy fight between airport authorities and a family arriving from a Mexican vacation in 2016 has resulted in a lawsuit filed last week between the city of Phoenix and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Robert Couse-Baker

What started as an alleged diabetic hunger pang turned into a physical fight between a family and airport officers that has sparked a legal battle four years later between the city of Phoenix and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The jurisdictional dispute centers around key testimony the city claims it needs to help win one of the family’s pending lawsuits against the city.

The feds refuse to help, saying its agents are too busy.

On May 22, the city filed a federal complaint against the federal DHS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, asking the court to force CBP officers to testify in the case.

The trouble began when married couple David Khalaj and Juliet David Youmaran returned to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport from Puerto Vallarta on New Year’s Day 2016 with their 10-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter.

Khalaj, now 58, was born in Tehran and Youmaran, 59, in Baghdad. Both are U.S. citizens.

After leaving their plane, the Sun Lakes family entered passport control. In that procedure, passengers are shepherded to a large room, where they enter their passport information into kiosks, declare their possessions, talk to a passport officer, and get their passports stamped before proceeding to baggage claim. The family cleared passport control with no problem. They headed to one final checkpoint where customs agents can inspect luggage. Agents there routinely advise travelers to proceed as a family and with their passports held ready for checking.

Around 4 p.m., Khalaj reported feeling light-headed and told his family he was going to grab a bite to eat, thinking he had cleared customs, the complaint states. That’s when federal customs agents turned him back and told him he could only clear inspection with the entire family.

He told them he was diabetic, but the agents wouldn’t budge. They encircled him. And that’s when hell broke loose.

An argument devolved into a loud confrontation and then assault. How that unfolded is the subject of court actions. Plural.

The family sued the U.S. government and, separately, the Phoenix Police Department in U.S. District Court on the same day in December 2017. The lawsuits allege that authorities violated their civil rights by falsely imprisoning them, and used excessive force in arresting them. The case against Phoenix names four officers and their spouses in a damage claim. The case against CBP seeks $1 million in damages.

The family also sued Maricopa County, county prosecutors, and Phoenix police in Maricopa County Superior Court. Both of these superior court cases were later dismissed, in part to move the issue against the police to Arizona U.S District Court.

In federal court, where the two outstanding civil rights cases by the family are moving forward, the family claims both U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and Phoenix police officers cuffed Khalaj, cutting his wrists, and that they grabbed and hit Khalaj to bundle him into an airport holding cell. The civil complaints allege that customs agents assaulted Youmaran when she tried to intervene and that agents, and that police officers yelled ethnic epithets during the encounter.

"During their unlawful confinement by Phoenix Police, Plaintiffs were called a variety of unimaginable racial epithets that should not be repeated here — except to note that 'sand n**ger' was the mildest of these," one of the family's complaints states.

The CBP and the Phoenix Police Department both declined comment, citing policies of not discussing ongoing litigation. But in court filings both denied all the substantive allegations about the attack.

The family’s attorney, David Gaona, did not respond to requests for comment.

Police proffered their own version of events when they booked Khalaj and Youmaran into county jail seven hours after the altercation, and after they’d taken the pair to the hospital to treat their cuts and bruises.

In the booking sheets filed in Maricopa County Superior Court, Phoenix cops said the pair cussed out the officers who arrived to help CBP quell the fracas. Amid the f-bombs, police claim, Khalaj took swings at uniformed agents, threatened one by  saying “I’m going to kick your ass," and bit another.

Youmaran, police said, hit officers four times in their legs and arms.

click to enlarge Juliet David Youmaran and David Khalaj's booking mugshot from 2016. - MCSO
Juliet David Youmaran and David Khalaj's booking mugshot from 2016.
In court documents, police say the pair admitted to these acts during CBP’s initial investigation of the incident. Youmaran was booked into jail on suspicion of five felony counts of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer. Khalaj was booked with one such count, plus another felony charge for suspected threats. They were later indicted on all charges, but the criminal case against them was dismissed in 2017.

Federal prosecutors chose not to press charges. A spokesperson for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office said the charges in its prosecution of the couple were knocked down to misdemeanors because the CBP agents don’t qualify as law enforcement agents under the Arizona assault statute.

The couple claims that the same issue should apply to their arrest: They say that CBP didn’t have the right to arrest them, and that Phoenix was negligent in allowing them to be held and not checking if the agents were properly authorized.

At issue was how “peace officers” are defined by state law. Federal law enforcement officers must be certified to make arrests. That process generally is handled through Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training Board, or AZPOST.

“When David’s and Juliet’s counsel checked with AZPOST to independently determine whether any of the alleged victims were certified as peace officers in the State of Arizona, or had obtained the status by means of a waiver, they learned over the course of a five-minute phone call that none of the Federal CBP employees allegedly assaulted was a ‘peace officer,’” the civil suit against Phoenix claims.

The city now seeks a judge’s order compelling the CBP agents to testify in defense of the lawsuit brought against the city by the family.

In court filings, lawyers for Phoenix noted that the government said in a February letter it was reluctant to turn its agents for eight different reasons, including, “the need to conserve the time of DHS employees for the conduct of official business." The city wants two agents to testify as to what Khalaj and Youmaran said during questioning.

In filings, the city added that the agents “are the only individuals who can corroborate what Plaintiffs contend was told to them … including perhaps recalling information they communicated to Plaintiffs that Plaintiffs do not recall from over four years ago.”
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Sean Holstege is a freelance reporter with a 30-year career in print news. He was an investigative reporter at The Arizona Republic and the Oakland Tribune. He won a Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting. He’s covered transportation, terrorism, the border, disasters, child welfare, courts, and breaking news.
Contact: Sean Holstege