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ACLU Lawsuit Targets Feds Over Search of U.S. Citizen

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union alleges that U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in El Paso subjected a U.S. citizen to unwarranted searches, including vaginal probes and a CT scan.

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EL PASO — U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents subjected a U.S. citizen to unwarranted searches, including vaginal probes and a CT scan, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union in a U.S. district court.

The woman, who is referred to as “Jane Doe” in the lawsuit, is a New Mexico resident and was stopped while entering the United States at the Cordova Bridge in El Paso on Dec. 12, 2012, according to court records.

She was searched at the border checkpoint and taken to University Medical Center on the city’s south side. The woman, 54, was released after six hours and was not charged with a crime. She was randomly chosen for the initial search at the port, court documents state.

“First, government agents strip searched Ms. Doe and made a visual and manual inspection of her genitals and anus. Finding nothing, Defendants next subjected her to an observed bowel movement,” the complaint states. “When that procedure yielded no evidence of drugs, Defendants X-rayed Ms. Doe. Having found nothing, Defendants next shackled Ms. Doe to an examining table and inserted a speculum into her vagina, performed a rectal exam on her, and conducted a bimanual cavity search of her vagina. Still not satisfied, Defendants subjected Ms. Doe to a CT scan and again found no evidence of drugs.”

The woman was subsequently charged $5,000 by the hospital because she refused to sign a consent-to-search form. The hospital is also named as a defendant in the ACLU’s filing, and the plaintiff is seeking an injunction to prevent hospital staff from performing future law-enforcement searches. "Ms. Doe" also seeks a jury trial and monetary compensation.

Roger Maier, a public affairs officer with CBP in El Paso, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. But he said that most officers act professionally and that the agency works diligently to weed out any agents who harm CBP's mission.

"CBP stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of our mission, and the overwhelming majority of CBP employees and officers perform their duties with honor and distinction, working tirelessly every day to keep our country safe," he said in an email. "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."

The public affairs office at University Medical Center did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the allegations.

Attorneys for the ACLU said the alleged action indicates the further erosion of rights under the guise of “border security.”

“Securing the border has become an excuse for outright abandonment of constitutional principles that protect our privacy and dignity,” Adriana Piñon, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement. “The hand of the government should never have unfettered power to invade our most intimate bodily spaces.”

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