U.S. Citizen Receives Settlement over Body Cavity Search at Border

A woman who was subjected to unwarranted body cavity searches after crossing a Texas-Mexico border in 2012 has been awarded nearly a half million dollars by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, her lawyers said.

 Josh Denmark

A woman who was subjected to unwarranted body cavity searches after crossing a Texas-Mexico border in 2012 has been awarded nearly half a million dollars by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, her lawyers said Thursday. 

The woman, who is identified only as Jane Doe in court documents, alleged that U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents working at El Paso’s Cordova Bridge ordered her to undergo vaginal probes and a CT scan after she attempted to enter the United States by foot, according to a lawsuit filed in federal district court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and ACLU of New Mexico. 

The woman, a New Mexico resident and United States citizen, was awarded $475,000, according to a statement by the ACLU, which is representing her. Doe was first searched at the border checkpoint and later taken to University Medical Center in El Paso, where hospital staff performed the more intrusive searches. The woman 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, and later charged more than $5,000 in hospital bills.

“While we are pleased to have obtained justice for our client, this is really a victory for residents of border communities, who shouldn’t have to fear interactions with the thousands of border agents in their midst,” Rebecca Robertson, the ACLU of Texas’ legal and policy director, said in a statement. “Of course, this result could not have been achieved without Ms. Doe’s courage and perseverance.”

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A spokesman with Customs and Border Protection in El Paso did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Thursday’s announcement follows a 2014 settlement in which Doe was awarded a combined $1.1 million by El Paso’s University Medical Center, the hospital’s insurance carrier and Texas Tech University. (The hospital is a teaching center for the university’s El Paso operations.) 

The ACLU also sent letters to 40 healthcare providers on the Southwest border “detailing the rights and responsibilities of hospital personnel when confronted by federal agents who request they perform invasive and illegal body cavity searches,” the group said in a statement.

“In investigating what happened to Jane Doe, we learned that medical personnel may not understand the constitutional limits on CBP’s authority to demand a medical search or the hospital’s authority to perform one,” the letter states. “In light of the potential liability your hospital could face for unconstitutional searches, we urge you to carefully consider the information provided here, which is consistent with and based in part on CBP’s own policy on medical searches for law enforcement purposes.”

The settlement also requires that Customs and Border Patrol officers in El Paso undergo an hour of additional training. 

"We asked for more, but to get any federal agency to commit to policy change is burdensome," ACLU senior staff attorney Edgar Saldivar told The Texas Tribune. "But to get the El Paso sector to agree to some policy change is huge. We have to fight for everything we can get to make sure people in the border are protected constitutionally."

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Disclosure: Texas Tech University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.