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US Customs Settles With American Citizen Over Body Cavity Search

The Bridge of the Americas from the El Paso, Texas side. This is the bridge American truck driver Jabin Bogan mistakenly drove across with a load of ammunition.
(Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe-KJZZ)
A 54-year-old woman who sued U.S. Customs and Border Protection walked across the Bridge of the Americas border crossing in El Paso when she detained in late 2012.

A woman who sued U.S. Customs and Border Protection after being subjected to a series of body cavity searches has reached a settlement with the agency worth nearly half a million dollars.

The American Civil Liberties Union announced the settlement Thursday, three years after the organization sued on the woman’s behalf in a federal district court in Texas claiming CBP violated her Fourth Amendment rights.  

In 2012, the 54-year-old woman, a U.S. citizen identified in court documents under the pseudonym “Jane Doe”, was returning from a visit to Mexico when a drug sniffing dog singled her out at a border crossing in El Paso. The lawsuit states that over the next six hours customs officers subjected the woman to multiple searches including vaginal and anal exams.

The suit claims officers also took her to the county hospital where she underwent a supervised bowel movement and a CT scan. None of the searches turned up any illegal drugs.  

"There was no search warrant and at no time did our client ever consent to any of the searches," said Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection emailed a statement on Thursday saying it was not admitting to wrongdoing by agreeing to the settlement. It said the agency already had policies in place that require officers to respect the civil rights of travelers.

The ACLU describes the settlement as one of the largest of its kind, involving a payout of $475,000. As part of the agreement CBP must also retrain officers and supervisors in its El Paso sector on the agency’s existing policies, which recognize constitutional protections against warrant-less searches.

In 2014 University Medical Center of El Paso, also named in the lawsuit, settled with the woman for $1.1 million for its role in the exams ordered by CBP. The suit claims the woman was billed more than $5,000 for the exams after she refused to sign a consent form.

The ACLU has sent letters to hospitals and medical facilities along the southwest border advising their staff of the liabilities they face when confronted with search requests by law enforcement.  

An Arizona woman filed a similar lawsuit in June, claiming CBP officers forced her to undergo a body cavity search at a hospital in 2014 after she crossed through the Nogales port of entry. That case is being reviewed by a federal district court in Tucson.

Last month the ACLU in Arizona filed a series of complaints with the Justice Department accusing CBP of violations such as detaining a border crosser without food or water for 12 hours.