July 07--A Texas hospital and emergency room physicians will pay a New Mexico woman $1.1. million to settle claims they improperly subjected her to invasive body cavity searches in a futile attempt to find drugs.
It's the latest settlement in a spate of lawsuits over body cavity searches. Two others have involved New Mexico law enforcement; Hidalgo County and the city of Deming earlier this year paid $1.6 million to settle a man's claims that he was illegally subjected to anal probes in a failed effort to discover drugs.
The current lawsuit alleges U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials asked University Medical Center of El Paso doctors to search a 54-year-old woman after a drug-sniffing dog singled her out when she crossed an international bridge on her return from Mexico in December 2012.
The searches included six hours of vaginal and rectal exams that turned up no drugs.
"We certainly hope that it stands as a reminder to physicians and hospitals that they need not conduct these searches at the behest of law enforcement," said Laura Schauer Ives, a cooperating attorney with the ACLU of New Mexico. "There was no warrant and the level of intrusion was beyond the pale, absolutely egregious."
Without a warrant, defendants visually and manually examined the woman's body cavities, observed a bowel movement, took X-rays and -- after finding no drugs -- performed additional vaginal and anal exams, according to the lawsuit. The woman, who was released without any charge, was subsequently billed $5,000 by the hospital.
The $1.1 million settlement only partially resolves the lawsuit's claims. Four CBP officers also named in the lawsuit, including two supervising agents, were not part of the settlement. Those claims remain pending in federal court.
A CBP spokesman Monday said the agency does not comment on existing litigation.
It's not clear how frequently border officers ask for such body cavity searches, as CBP does not provide statistics regarding its search requests. However, Schauer Ives said her client's experience suggested "that it did not seem to be an unusual event."
"The ease with which this happened to my client and the number of invasive searches she was subjected to suggests to me that it happens with frequency," she said.
As part of the settlement, the El Paso hospital has agreed to review with ACLU lawyers its internal policies regarding law enforcement searches.
Copyright 2014 - Albuquerque Journal, N.M.