A New Mexico woman known only as Jane Doe has just been awarded a record-breaking settlement by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after a three-year legal battle led by the ACLU of Texas. In 2012, Doe was illegally detained at the Cordova Bridge border while passing through El Paso on her way back into the United States from Mexico. Customs officials claimed that their drug-sniffing dog indicated Doe was carrying drugs, and proceeded to make her strip naked, at which point they searched for the imaginary contraband inside of her anus and vagina.
Though no drugs were found, Doe was taken to a nearby hospital, "where over the course of six hours she suffered an observed bowel movement, an X-ray, a speculum exam of her vagina, a bimanual vaginal and rectal exam, and a CT scan," the ACLU reported in a press release issued earlier today. "These procedures were conducted without Ms. Doe's consent or a search warrant."
Doe has received a $475,000 settlement; this sky-high rate is especially significant given the 2016 presidential election, where border security and immigration control have been hot button issues for both parties—particularly Republican nominee Donald Trump.
Edgar Saldivar is the senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. In an interview with Broadly, Saldivar explained there is a correlation between Doe's case and the political landscape of today. Saldivar points out that Republican party leaders talk about "pumping more money and resources into border security, but all reports indicate that the southwestern border is over-militarized." According to Saldivar, over-militarization is a problem in part because it leads to customs and border agents who have an inflated sense of power, which breeds corruption and leads to the abuse of the fundamental rights of American citizens.
The high settlement in this case is important, Saldivar told Broadly, because the violation of Doe's rights was egregious and such violations cannot be allowed to occur without severe consequences. According to Saldivar, a strong message needs to be sent to the US government in order to affirm that our constitutional rights cannot be casually stripped away.
"This case can possibly, and hopefully will, lead to reform, transparency, and oversight of federal agencies to which politicians want to pump even more money into," he said.
As Saldivar notes, the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures of property; this case constituted a major violation of that right. "The Fourth Amendment is designed to protect our most intimate spaces and our bodily integrity," Saldivar said. "We're talking about the most basic human rights of any human being."
Doe's body was examined for hours. She had x-rays and c-scans, observed bowel movements, and physical searches inside of her performed by border control officials who had no evidence. According to Saldivar, the burden of proof to perform such extreme invasive procedures must be held incredibly high. "The more invasive the search, the more justification that is required for that search," he said.
The US government wasn't the only party that this lawsuit was brought against. In addition to the individual government officials involved, the ACLU sued the hospital and hospital workers involved in Doe's illegal search on her behalf. The hospital settled shortly after the lawsuit was brought in 2013. This morning, they sent information to healthcare providers across the southwest informing them of their right to demand a warrant when asked to perform such searches by the government.
Sadly, Saldivar says he's recently heard of a case in Arizona that bears striking similarity to Doe's. According to him, "there is a "pattern of abuse across the border, from San Diego to Houston."