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Woman Settles Cavity Search Lawsuit for $1.1 Million

UPDATED: A woman who sued a border-area hospital and agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection after being subjected to what she argued was an unwarranted body cavity search for drugs has settled part of the lawsuit for $1.1 million.

El Paso border agent.

Updated, July 7, 7 p.m.:

In a statement, hospital president and CEO James Valenti said that University Medical Center staff treats every patient with respect and dignity and that the settlement was more than a simple dismissal of the incident.

“UMC’s settlement of this case was not intended to 'make it go away.' 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,” he said. “We also intend to make sure that area law enforcement agencies understand that UMC's only concern when patients are brought to us in their custody is patient care. We do not see those patients as prisoners. We are here solely to tend to their needs and to do our best to ensure that they have a good outcome.”

The statement adds that the hospital agreed to a settlement of $125,000. Its insurance carrier, the National Union Fire Insurance Company will pay $475,000, and Texas Tech University will provide $500,000 of the settlement. (UMC is a teaching center for the university’s El Paso operations.)

Original story:

A woman who sued a border-area hospital and agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection after being subjected to what she argued was an unwarranted body cavity search for drugs has settled part of the lawsuit for $1.1 million.

The woman, a resident of New Mexico who is called “Jane Doe” in court documents, was subjected in December 2012 to vaginal probes and CT scans after crossing the port of entry in El Paso. The suit against University Medical Center was filed in December 2013 by the American Civil Liberties Union. The case against Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is still pending, according to a statement from the ACLU.

“Despite the trauma and humiliation endured by our client, she had the courage to step forward,” Rebecca L. Robertson, the legal and policy director for the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement. “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.”

A call to the hospital seeking comment was not immediately returned.

The ACLU said some of those policy changes included improving hospital practices around law enforcement searches and making sure hospital staffers are well-trained in them. Robertson added that the hospital has agreed to go over future policies with the ACLU to make sure they conform to best practice standards.

According to the ACLU, a K-9 unit alerted agents to the woman in December of 2012. She was frisked and strip-searched at the port of entry in El Paso. The search continued when agents transported the woman to the hospital. Aside from the vaginal probe and CT scan, the woman also underwent a forced observed bowel movement, a rectal exam and an X-ray. She was eventually released six hours later then billed $5,000 because she refused to sign a consent-to-search statement.

The woman continues to suffer psychological and emotional trauma, the ACLU said.

Roger Maier, a public affairs officer with CBP in El Paso, said in December that 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. 

The incident helped prompt U.S. Reps. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, and Steve Pearce, R-N.M., to file legislation called the Border Accountability and Community Engagement Bill. If passed, it would create a commission charged with reviewing CBP’s “search and seizure, personnel training and community engagement policies."

The bill has been referred to a U.S. House committee, but no hearing has been scheduled, O'Rourke's office said.

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