Claims of Invasive Search at Border Settled for $1M
EL PASO, Texas (CN) - A New Mexico woman who claimed she was subjected to body-cavity searches for six hours at the Texas-Mexico border has settled her claims against a hospital for $1.1 million.
The unidentified woman, 54, of Lovington, N.M., sued the University Medical Center of El Paso, the El Paso County Hospital District and its board members, as well as several Border Patrol agents, in December 2013. The federal complaint alleged that the woman was returning to the United States via the Cordova Bridge in El Paso in December 2012 when a drug-sniffing dog jumped onto her.
"Over the course of the next six hours, defendants subjected Ms. Doe to a series of highly invasive searches, any one of which would have been humiliating and demeaning," the 17-page complaint said. "First, government agents stripped 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. 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."
UMCEP later allegedly sent the woman a $5,000 bill for the examinations.
The woman claimed that a Border Patrol agent offered to pay for the cost of the searches if she signed a medical consent form, which she refused to do.
"At no point during the searches of Ms. Doe did CBP agents obtain a warrant authorizing a search of her body," the complaint stated. "The searches conducted by defendant CBP agents and the doctors injured Ms.Doe physically, mentally and emotionally. Her labia, vaginal opening, and anus were left raw and sore and she felt violated, demeaned and powerless as a result of the searches."
A settlement announcement led to the filing Monday by the woman and her attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas to dismiss her claims against the UMCEP defendants. Claims against the Border Patrol agents remain pending.
Under the settlement, UMCEP agreed to review revisions to its internal policies governing law enforcement searches with the ACLU's lawyers. Laura Shauer Ives with the ACLU of New Mexico says the group is "pleased" UMCEP has acted to "alleviate the great wrong done to our client."
"We hope this settlement will stand as a powerful reminder to other doctors and medical facilities that they have the right and responsibility to refuse to carry out unjustified, unnecessary, demeaning searches on behalf of law enforcement," she said Monday.
James Valenti, UMCEP's president and CEO, said the hospital does not see its patients "as prisoners." He said the hospital expects patients to be treated "with respect and dignity," and that settlement was not intended to make the lawsuit "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," Valenti said in a statement Monday. "We also intend to make sure that area law enforcement agencies understand that [the hospital's] only concern when patients are brought to us in their custody is patient care."