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Texas Hospital Settles Suit over Improper Border Patrol Search for $1.1 Million

Texas Hospital Settles Suit over Improper Border Patrol Search for $1.1 Million

by Matt Clarke

The University Medical Center of El Paso and its emergency room physicians settled their part of a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by a New Mexico woman who was forcibly subjected to invasive searches and medical procedures after she returned from a brief trip to Mexico. The $1.1 million settlement was announced on July 7, 2014.

Jane Doe is the pseudonym of a petite female U.S. citizen who resides in New Mexico; she was 54 years old on December 8, 2012 when she returned to the U.S. after a short visit with a friend in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. After entering the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) El Paso Service Port on the Cordova Bridge, Doe presented herself to CBP officials. She was randomly selected for additional screening. This resulted in a pat search during which one of the female CBP agents ran a finger over Doe’s genital area.

Subsequently, an agent told Doe to squat and she complied. The agent put her finger in the waistband of Doe’s pants and inserted her finger into the crevice of Doe’s buttocks. Doe never consented to this search, which upset and embarrassed her but revealed no contraband.

Doe was then told to wait in a line with others. As a CBP dog handler passed by Doe with his canine, he stamped the ground with his feet and the dog lunged at Doe with its front paws landing on her torso. This frightened Doe.

A supervising CBP agent grabbed Doe, led her to a separate room and ordered her to pull down her pants. An agent examined her anus with a flashlight. She was ordered to lean back and an agent parted her vaginal lips and pressed her fingers into Doe’s vulva. Humiliated, Doe began crying. She did not consent to the search, which also turned up no evidence of contraband.

Two CBP agents handcuffed Doe and forcibly transported her to the University Medical Center. During the transport, she asked if they had a warrant and was told they didn’t need one. Upon arrival at the hospital, Doe was handcuffed to an examination table in the emergency room. Without obtaining consent or taking a detailed medical history, two male physicians and the two agents continued to physically search Doe for contraband.

A portable toilet was wheeled in and Doe was ordered to take a laxative. The agents observed her bowel movement which showed no signs of contraband. The physicians then ordered that Doe’s abdomen be X-rayed. This also resulted in no sign of contraband.

With the CBP agents and nurses in the examining room, and the door open so passersby could look in, a physician ordered Doe to spread her legs and performed a forced gynecological exam. The physician probed Doe’s vagina with a speculum and his fingers while palpitating her abdomen, then inserted his fingers into her rectum. No contraband was discovered.

The doctors then ordered a CT scan of Doe’s abdomen and pelvis, exposing her to between 150 and 1,110 times the radiation of a convention X-ray, without her consent. After that procedure also turned up no sign of contraband, a CBP agent told her she would have to sign a medical consent form, in which case the CBP would pay for the examinations, or she would be billed for them if she refused to sign. She refused and was released over six hours after being detained on the Cordova Bridge. The hospital subsequently sent Doe a $5,000 bill for the non-consensual searches and procedures performed by its medical staff.

With the assistance of ACLU attorneys Adriana C. Pinon, Rebecca L. Robertson, Laura Schauer Ives, Alexandra Smith and Jesse Hale, Doe filed a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Bivens in federal court, alleging violations of her constitutional rights. The hospital settled the lawsuit for $1.1 million, though the claims against the CBP were not included in the settlement agreement. The hospital paid $125,000, its insurance carrier covered $475,000 and Texas Tech University, which operates a medical school campus at the hospital, paid $500,000. After an ACLU investigation revealed that hospital emergency room personnel routinely performed searches for CBP agents without a warrant, the hospital changed its policy to require a search warrant from a court before such searches are conducted.

“Securing the border has become an excuse for outright abandonment of Constitutional principles that protect our privacy and dignity,” Pinon said. “Enough is enough. The hand of government should never have unfettered power to invade our most intimate bodily spaces.”

“These extreme and illegal searches deeply traumatized our client,” added Ives. “The fact that our government treated an innocent 54-year-old woman with such brutality and inhumanity should outrage all Americans. We must ensure that government agents never put another person through a nightmare like this ever again.”

“Despite the trauma and humiliation endured by our client, she had the courage to step forward,” Robertson stated. “Because of her, the hospital has changed its policy to prevent this from happening to others. Now, we hope that CBP will also take responsibility and stop subjecting innocent people to unconstitutional and abusive searches.”

The case remains pending against the CBP defendants. See: Doe v. El Paso County Hospital District, U.S.D.C. (W.D. TX), Case No. 3:13-cv-00406-DCG.

Additional sources: Associated Press, www.aclutx.org

 

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