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Tuesday, June 11, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Six Months in Prison, for Cheese Making

SAN DIEGO (CN) - Customs and Border Patrol officers threw a California woman in prison for six months after claiming a cheese-making enzyme she was bringing in from Mexico, rennet, was methamphetamine, the woman claims in court.

During her six months of unconstitutional incarceration, Doyma Vanessa Michel says, she was attacked in a prison and received injuries from which she suffers to this day.

She sued U.S. Customs and Border Protection, three Border Patrol officers, and Safariland, which makes the field test the officers used on the rennet to claim it was meth.

Michel, a U.S. citizen from Escondido, was queuing in line at the San Ysidro border crossing on June 2, 2014 when an officer asked her why she had no front license plate, she says in her Feb. 2 federal lawsuit.

Another officer opened the passenger door and saw a bottle of liquid in the glove compartment. They sent her to secondary inspection, where officers tested the bottle of rennet, and other bottles of rennet they found in the car, using Safariland's Narco-Pouch 923 methamphetamine test kit.

They told her the liquids tested positive for meth, Michel says in the complaint.

She "vociferously" denied the test results, and said that bottles contained rennet, a food enzyme made from calf stomach linings.

Rennet, cuajo in Spanish, is a widely used clotting agent for cheese. It curdles the main protein in milk, casein, and separates milk into solid curds.

The officers refused to retest the liquid or send it out to be analyzed at a Border Patrol lab, Michel says. In fact, they refused to retest it for nearly the entire six months she was illegally imprisoned, according to the lawsuit.

She was arrested, interrogated, and imprisoned at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego from June 3 to Aug. 23, 2014, then transferred to the Otay Mesa prison, run by the Corrections Corporation of America, until she was released on Dec. 9, 2014. Another inmate injured her inside the CCA prison, "an injury she still suffers from today," she says in the complaint.

"During the period plaintiff was imprisoned and up until days before she was released, the government defendants did not at any point take any steps to retest the cuajo which plaintiff had been so adamant was a harmless cheese making ingredient," according to the complaint.

What's more, she says, Safariland "knew that the field drug test kits were unreliable and not fit for such a purpose."

Michel's attorney Steve Haskins directed Courthouse News to a report detailing a 2015 settlement between Safariland and West Virginia resident Michael Sullivan.

Sullivan was arrested in Cherokee National Forest in 2013 and spent three weeks in jail after field tests appeared to show he had methamphetamine and liquid THC.

But state crime lab tests revealed that the substances were not illegal drugs, and Sullivan settled separate lawsuits against Safariland and the arresting law enforcement agency.

Safariland did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Customs and Border Patrol spokesman Ralph DeSio told Courthouse News that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Michel says the ordeal gave her continuing medical problems, including headaches, skin problems, back and stomach pain, migraines, and anxiety attacks.

She submitted an administrative tort claim to Customs and Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security on Jan. 20, 2015, and they issued a final denial on Aug. 26, so she has exhausted her administrative remedies.

Michel seeks punitive damages for civil rights violations, false imprisonment, failure to train and supervise, emotional distress, misrepresentation, negligence, breach of warranty, and unfair competition.

Attorney Haskins and his associate Paul Blake work out of Bonita.

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