Hospital settles with NM woman over cavity search
A Texas hospital and its emergency room physicians have reached a $1.1M settlement with a New Mexico woman who sued them and U.S. customs officials
EL PASO, Texas — A Texas hospital and its emergency room physicians have reached a $1.1 million settlement with a New Mexico woman who sued them and U.S. customs officials after she was subjected to a body cavity search, her attorneys said Monday.
The allegations against U.S. Customs and Border Protection made in the 54-year-old woman's federal lawsuit are pending, according to the statement from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit in federal court in El Paso last December on behalf of the woman, who was not identified.
The lawsuit said the woman, a U.S. citizen, was "brutally" searched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in December 2012 after being selected for additional 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 Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, the lawsuit said.
Agents stripped and searched her, then conducted body-cavity searches, but found no evidence of drugs, court documents said. The woman was transported in handcuffs to the University Medical Center of El Paso, where doctors subjected her to an observed bowel movement, a CT scan and other intrusive examinations without a warrant, the lawsuit alleged.
No drugs were found and the woman was released without charges, the ACLU said.
"Despite the trauma and humiliation endured by our client, she had the courage to step forward," said Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for the ACLU of Texas. "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 hospital said it will pay $125,000, its insurance carrier $475,000 and Texas Tech University, which operates a medical school campus at the hospital, $500,000.
"UMC's settlement of this case was not intended to 'make it go away,'" hospital President James Valenti said in a written statement. "It was meant to bring closure for the plaintiff and to the issues that she alleged and to ensure our stakeholders that we have taken steps to tighten our policies and reinforce them with staff."
Roger Maier, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation. In general, Maier said, "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."
According to the agency's website, its 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."
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