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ACLU suing over reported body cavity drug searches

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

The New Mexico and Texas chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union are suing border officers and a hospital after they allegedly subjected a U.S. citizen to numerous invasive body cavity searches without a warrant.

Included in the lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in West Texas are four U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and the University Medical Center of El Paso, among others. The lawsuit alleges CBP officers frisked and strip-searched a 54-year-old woman and then delivered her in handcuffs to the hospital, where doctors observed a bowel movement and performed invasive rectal and vaginal probes, among other exams.

The officers released the woman after six hours of searches turned up no contraband. The hospital subsequently billed her $5,000.

The ACLU lawsuit follows another filed in November in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque by a Lordsburg man who alleges Deming police officers and Hidalgo County sheriff’s deputies subjected him to eight invasive body searches, including a colonoscopy and three enemas, in a futile effort to find drugs.

David W. Eckert, 54, says law enforcement held him for 15 hours using an invalid and expired warrant.

Eckert was also expected to foot the bill for the procedures requested by law enforcement. Gila Regional Medical Center billed Eckert some $6,000, according to his attorney, Shannon Kennedy.

In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, in which the plaintiff uses the pseudonym Jane Doe, the ACLU says the legal action “concerns constitutional limits on the government’s ability to invade a person’s most intimate bodily spaces to search for drugs without any judicial oversight or even reasonable suspicion.”

The CBP issued a statement saying, “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.”

CBP spokesman Roger Maier said the agency does not comment on the specifics of pending litigation.

Plaintiff Doe was crossing the international Cordova bridge from Ciudad Juárez into El Paso in December last year when a drug-sniffing dog jumped on her, the lawsuit says, setting off a series of searches that began with officers making a “visual and manual inspection of her genitals and anus.” According to the lawsuit, the searches became increasingly invasive from there at the hospital.

“I am not aware of any statute that explicitly gives permission to do this search,” said ACLU New Mexico Legal Director Laura Schauer Ives. “We believe this well exceeds the limits of the Fourth Amendment. They conducted less invasive searches that revealed nothing, and it should have stopped there.”

The University Medical Center said in a statement that “hospital policy is to obtain consent from all patients who receive medical services at UMC” and declined to comment further due to the litigation.

While it’s not clear how often smugglers stash drugs internally, the CBP nabbed a woman in California last week for carrying 6 ounces of methamphetamine “hidden within a body cavity.” In September, California CBP officers caught a woman holding $10,000 worth of methamphetamine inside her body.

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