Feds Settle Claims of Abuse at Mexican Border

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (CN) – The federal government paid an $85,000 settlement to a disabled woman who was arrested by a Customs and Border Protection agent for no reason and handcuffed so tightly her wrists were rubbed raw, her attorneys said.

Laura Mireles of Brownsville, Texas, is around 5 feet tall and weighs 110 pounds. She was born with deformed hands and feet and displays a disabled placard in her car.

She has worked at a duty-free store on the U.S. side of the Veterans International Bridge that spans the border between Brownsville and Matamoros, Mexico, since 2005, according to an amended federal lawsuit she filed in February 2015.

She sued the United States of America, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and CBP agent Daniel Riano, alleging he used excessive force while arresting her on Nov. 5, 2012, in the parking lot outside her workplace.

Mireles alleged in the lawsuit that she was tasked with closing the store that night, but a co-worker who lives in Mexico had the keys. Mireles drove south on the bridge, went through Mexican customs and picked up the keys at the foot of the Mexico side of the bridge.

To expedite the process for low-risk people who frequently drive across the border into the United States, CBP has a program called Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection, or SENTRI.

Mireles had a SENTRI decal on her car’s windshield that day. She says in the lawsuit she wanted to get back to her workplace as soon as possible because her other co-worker was alone there.

A CBP agent waved her through to a “special lane” that bypassed X-ray machines on the bridge and the whole trip took about 15 minutes, according to the lawsuit.

Shortly thereafter, Mireles says, Riano pulled his patrol car into the parking lot with its lights flashing as she and her co-worker got in their cars to go home.

“He asked why she had not passed through the X-ray machines on the bridge. She responded that she was given permission to use the special lane by the agent in the SENTRI lane,” the complaint states. “Agent Riano radioed the SENTRI agent and confirmed Ms. Mireles’s explanation.”

Nonetheless, Riano called in another agent to help him search the vehicles, Mireles says.

She claims she stood about 9 feet away from Riano as he searched her car’s interior and trunk. Then, finding nothing, he allegedly began rifling through her purse that was on the front passenger seat.

“She took a few steps forward to have a better view of her purse, but remained on the driver’s side of the car,” the lawsuit states.

Mireles says she was then 15 feet away from Riano, but he told her to move away and she asked if he was searching her purse.

“Rather than respond to her question, Agent Riano shouted at Ms. Mireles to move away. She politely explained that she only wanted to watch,” the complaint states. “At no time did Ms. Mireles advance upon Agent Riano or his partner. At no time did she threaten Agent Riano or his partner.”

But Riano allegedly grabbed Mireles and threw her face down to the ground, skinning her knee and elbows. He handcuffed her and put all his 200 pounds on her, she claims.

“Mireles was confused, scared, and crying. She asked Agent Riano to let her go and to explain why this happened,” the lawsuit states.

Riano took Mireles in his patrol car to the U.S. Customs office on the bridge, where she sat in the car until after 10 p.m., because she “was in too much pain to walk into the customs office,” she says.

Paramedics were called for Mireles. They couldn’t get the handcuffs off her wrists so CBP called a fire department to take them off, court records show.

“The handcuffs had been placed so tightly on her wrists that the metal rubbed Ms. Mireles’s wrists raw, resulting in wounds to each wrist. After approximately two hours in custody, Ms. Mireles was released without ever being charged with an offense,” the complaint states.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas represented Mireles in her lawsuit that accused Riano of excessive force and false arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and asserted state-law claims of assault, battery and infliction of emotional distress against the government.

Thursday’s $85,000 settlement announcement came a month after the parties agreed to dismiss the lawsuit.

A CBP spokesman on Friday morning referred Courthouse News to the U.S. Justice Department to find out whether Riano was disciplined or fired for the incident. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

“Conducting searches at the border does not give law enforcement officers of any stripe a blank check to trample the Constitution, much less attack a 100-pound shopkeeper with a disability. Border security means nothing if residents of our border communities are not safe from the law enforcement officers who are sworn to protect and serve them,” Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement.

The government paid a $475,000 settlement in July to a woman who sued CBP in December 2013. She claimed CBP agents shackled her to an exam table at an El Paso hospital and searched her vagina and anus, made her undergo a CT scan, and observed her bowel movements, in a fruitless search for drugs after a drug-sniffing dog “alerted” on her at a border checkpoint.