ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Federal agents wrongfully strip-searched a New Mexico woman at the El Paso border crossing, then took her to a hospital where she was forced to undergo illegal body cavity probes in an attempt to find drugs, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in El Paso said the unnamed 54-year-old U.S. citizen was “brutally” searched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in December 2012 after being selected for additional random screening at the Cordova Bridge in El Paso when a drug sniffing dog jumped on her. The woman was returning from a visit to a recently deported family friend in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, the lawsuit said.
Agents quickly stripped searched her and did cavity searches but found no evidence of drugs, court documents said. But the woman was transported in handcuffs to the University Medical Center of El Paso, the lawsuit said, where doctors subjected her to an observed bowel movement, a CT scan and other exams without a warrant.
Roger Maier, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation. “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,” Maier said.
According to the agency’s website, CBP officers are expected to “conduct their duties in a professional manner and to treat each traveler with dignity and respect.” The website says agents “use diverse factors to refer individuals for targeted examinations.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and Texas said no drugs were found on the woman despite the intrusive searches.
“After enduring approximately six hours of demeaning and highly invasive searches, (the woman) was released without any charge,” the lawsuit said.
However, her attorney said she was charged $5,000 by the hospital.
“What is truly frightening about this incident is that it could have happened to anyone,” said ACLU-NM Legal Director Laura Schauer Ives. “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.”
Named in the lawsuit were the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the University Medical Center of El Paso, and various agents allegedly involved in the searches.
“Hospital policy is to obtain consent from all patients who receive medical services at UMC,” Margaret Althoff-Olivas, a spokeswoman for University Medical Center of El Paso told the AP in a statement. “Because this case involves litigation, UMC will not be commenting further.”
The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount in compensatory and punitive damages.
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