A U.S. citizen has accused Customs and Border Patrol officers of sexual assault after she endured a six-hour anal and vaginal cavity search.
Are U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers violating Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights as part of a last ditch effort to win a battle in the failed war on drugs?
It’s a question that many civil-and immigration-rights activists have begun to ask after a citizen came forward saying she was forced to have a six-hour anal and vaginal cavity search by CBP officers who were convinced she was smuggling drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border even though she wasn’t.
The 54-year-old woman — whose name has not been released since she identifies as a victim of sexual assault — filed a lawsuit with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union last week against the agents and doctors who searched her genitals without her consent and charged her more than $5,000 for the exams.
According to the lawsuit, the woman has visited a family friend whom she considers and refers to as “uncle” at least once a month since he was deported to Mexico. But last December when she was attempting to cross the Bridge of the Americas from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico into the U.S., she was pulled aside for an additional “random” inspection.
During the ordeal, she was first frisked and strip-searched at the port of entry, which included officers sticking their fingers inside her anus looking for drugs. They didn’t find anything, but then she was told to stand in a line with other people as a drug-sniffing dog walked past them.
According to the lawsuit, the officer handling the drug dog “hit the ground by [Ms. Doe’s] feet, but did not hit the ground by any of the others in the line. The dog responded by lunging onto Ms. Doe and landing its front paws on her torso.” She was then escorted into a room where officers examined her anus and vagina with a flashlight, before taking her to University Medical Center.
“During the car ride to the Medical Center, Ms. Doe asked if the agents had a warrant,” the lawsuit said. “One of them responded that they did not need a warrant.”
While Americans are protected under the Fourth Amendment from unreasonable search and seizure, there is a Constitution-Free zone in the U.S. that stretches inland about 100 miles, and in some cases is applied to the entire state.
As Jed Untereker, legal director of Paso Del Norte Civil Rights Project, said, “At a port of entry, you have diminished rights,” which gives the federal government leeway on what they are able to ask you and what they have to do to search you.
“It is not like you are at your house where they need a search warrant. They don’t even need probable cause,” he said.
Once at the hospital, the woman was handcuffed to an examination table, given a laxative and forced to defecate in front of the officers. Doctors also took an x-ray of her stomach, a CT scan of her abdomen and pelvis, gave her a gynecological exam, and probed her vaginal and anal cavities with their fingers. They never found any drugs.
“Ms. Doe felt that she was being treated less than human, like an animal,” the lawsuit says, noting that the exam room door was left open throughout her ordeal, and that she was told CBP would pay her medical bills only if she agreed to sign a consent form.
Now the woman says she wants an undisclosed financial settlement for the physical and emotional trauma she experienced, and for the government to end the policy allowing federal agents and officers the legal authority to “stick their fingers and objects up people’s cavities when they search for drugs.”
“The fact that our government treated an innocent 54-year-old woman with such brutality and inhumanity should outrage all Americans,” said ACLU of New Mexico Legal Director Laura Schauer Ives. “We must ensure that government agents never put another person through a nightmare like this ever again.”
Invasive law enforcement practices
Ives told the El Paso Times that unfortunately searches like this are becoming common among law enforcement. She said when an officer can’t find any drugs, they should not continue with more intrusive searches. Ives called for changes to the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations that result in diminished rights near the border, and said “Customs and Border Protection is acting without accountability right now.
“They are doing whatever they deem necessary in their pursuit for undocumented immigrations (sic) and drugs. This case is a clear example of that. This was not constitutional or necessary to subject someone to this many searches, culminating in a cavity search. This should be a clear indication to every American that we have gone too far.”
Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso, Texas, agrees and has asked for an investigation into this latest incident, as well as CBP search and detention protocols, saying “The war on drugs cannot be an excuse for sexual assault under the color of legal authority.
“Constitutional limits exist so that the rights of our citizens are protected and the government does not deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” O’Rourke said. “CBP has a responsibility to ensure that all persons entering into our country are treated humanely and in accordance with our laws.”
Though CBP says it can’t comment on ongoing litigation, a representative for the largest law enforcement agency in the U.S. said that officials are held to the highest standard and work tirelessly to keep our country safe.
Bill Brooks, branch chief of the Southwest border media division for the CBP Office of Public Affairs, told MintPress that since the woman has not come forward, the agency can’t verify her claim. He shared some documents to better illustrate the agency’s authority and what their responsibility is when it comes to protecting America — including when and what officers are authorized to search at the port of entry.
When pressed to comment specifically on this case, Brooks pointed to the federal policy that gives CBP officers the authority to search all persons, baggage and merchandise arriving in the Customs territory of the U.S. from places outside.
He stressed that “CBP stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of our mission, and the overwhelming majority of CBP employees and officers perform their duties with honor and distinction, working tirelessly every day to keep our country safe.
“We do not tolerate corruption or abuse within our ranks, and we fully cooperate with any criminal or administrative investigations of alleged misconduct by any of our personnel, on or off-duty.”
Drug trafficking trends
What has been particularly concerning for so many in this case is that the woman’s story is eerily similar to that of New Mexico resident David Eckert, who filed a lawsuit against local law enforcement and medical professionals this fall after they conducted a 14-hour anal cavity search looking for narcotics.
“What is truly frightening about this incident is that it could have happened to anyone,” Ives said. “The failed drug war and militarized border region have created an environment in which law enforcement officials increasingly inflict extreme and illegal searches on innocent Americans. We need to ensure that no one is ever again subjected to a nightmare like our client suffered.”
Although Brooks said he was unaware of the existence of several similar lawsuits, the ACLU reported that the timing of this lawsuit comes as the organization and other civil rights advocates have begun to challenge the number of unlawful conduct incidents by local and federal law enforcement officials along the Southwest border.
The ACLU also expressed concern that the number of incidents like this may increase if there is a “border surge” and the border communities become increasingly militarized.
According to a report released earlier this year from the Center for Investigative Reporting, although the Border Patrol emphasizes that most of those smuggling drugs from Mexico into the U.S. are non-citizens, an analysis of CBP records shows that three out of four people found smuggling drugs into the U.S. are citizens.
The CIR report hypothesized that one reason CBP may have become more active in preventing drug trafficking into the U.S. is because the number of immigrants illegally crossing into the U.S. from Mexico is at its lowest level in decades, and the agency is trying to stay relevant. And it appears to be working.
Under the Obama administration, CBP has reportedly seized more drugs than any other time in history. With the exception of 2011, the agency has busted more Americans with drugs every year since 2005. Although drugs that are trafficked across the border include cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, the drug most commonly confiscated is marijuana.
Although the CIR analysis found that the Border Patrol agents said they tried to go after those who were part of the drug trafficking trade — which is possession of at least 1 kilogram of marijuana or a little more than 2 pounds — in actuality, most of the drug busts made were found to be incidences of personal possession, not resale; prompting some to wonder why there is such a strong policy in place allowing officers to search for drugs.
“Securing the border has become an excuse for outright abandonment of Constitutional principles that protect our privacy and dignity,” said Adriana Piñon, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas. “Enough is enough. The hand of the government should never have unfettered power to invade our most intimate bodily spaces.”