HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Customs Service Searches Prompt Suits
Source: Daily Herald (IL)
Copyright: 1998 The Daily Herald Company
Pubdate: Fri, 4 Dec. 1998
Author: Associated Press
Section: Sec. 1A


WASHINGTON - Returning to Chicago from Jamaica, Gwendolyn Richards was
plucked from a line of air travelers by a Customs Service inspector and
ordered into a bare, windowless room. Over the next five hours, she was
strip-searched, handcuffed, X-rayed, and probed internally by a doctor. The
armed Customs officers who led Richards in handcuffs through O'Hare
International Airport and drove her to a hospital for examination suspected
she might be smuggling drugs. They found nothing.

"I was humiliated - I couldn't believe it was happening," said Richards, who
is black and has joined a civil rights lawsuit against Customs. "They had no
reason to think I had drugs."

Richards, 27, isn't alone.

Officers last year ordered partial or full strip searches or X-rays for
2,447 airline passengers, but found drugs on just 27 percent of them,
according to figures compiled by the Customs Service. Sixty percent of those
pulled aside for such searches were black or Hispanic.

Customs officials say tough tactics are necessary to catch the growing
number of smugglers who swallow cocaine-filled balloons, insert packages of
heroin into their body cavities, even hide drugs in a hollow leg or under
cover of a fake pregnancy.

"We still have a major drug problem in this country," Customs Commissioner
Raymond Kelly said in an interview Wednesday. "We have to do this."

Kelly said race isn't a factor. "There are higher risk countries and higher
risk flights," he said. "Those flights may be more populated by a particular
ethnic group."

Last year, the Customs Service seized 858 pounds of cocaine and 803 pounds
of heroin attached to or inside international air travelers' bodies,
officials said. More than 70 percent of the heroin seized at airports was
smuggled that way.

Acknowledging that searches "can get pretty traumatic," Kelly said Customs
is experimenting with new technology that might reduce the number of body
searches. The review comes after several lawsuits and complaints from
travelers who say they suffered abusive treatment and hours of confinement.
For instance:

- -Two Jamaican-born U.S. citizens each filed a $500,000 claim in September
over body cavity searches and X-rays in Tampa, Fla. One of the women learned
afterwards she was pregnant and agonized that her unborn child might have
been harmed, according to their attorney, Warren Hope Dawson. The baby was
born healthy. Customs policy requires a pregnancy test before a woman is
X-rayed, but Dawson said the pregnant woman was not tested.

- -A 51-year-old widow returning from an around-the-world trip was held for 22
hours at a San Francisco hospital and given a powerful laxative while
inspectors watched her bowel movements. Amanda Buritica of Port Chester,
N.Y., won a $451,001 lawsuit last February against Customs.

- -A Boston nurse, Bosede Adedeji, won $215,000 in a similar lawsuit in 1991
after she was stopped at Logan International Airport as she returned from
visiting her sick son in Nigeria. A judge ruled the officers lacked
sufficient suspicion to subject her to an X-ray and pelvic exam.

Customs officials note that fewer than 2 percent of the 68 million fliers
who pass through Customs each year have their luggage opened. Far fewer -
49,000 people - are personally searched, usually with a pat down.

The 1,772 strip searches last year ranged from people told to remove their
socks to passengers like Richards who were ordered to take off their
underwear and bend over. Strip searches are performed by officers of the
same gender.

The Customs review found 19 passengers who were subjected to pelvic or
rectal exams by doctors while inspectors watched. Drugs were found in almost
two-thirds of those cases.

Congress and courts have given Customs broad authority to search for drugs,
weapons and other illegal imports.

The Supreme Court ruled that Customs officers at airports and border
crossings don't need the probable cause or warrants that police need to
search possessions. Customs officers can perform a strip search based on
"reasonable suspicion" that someone might be hiding something illegal.

A Customs handbook obtained by The Associated Press advises officers that
reasonable suspicion usually requires a combination of factors, including
someone who: appears nervous, wears baggy clothing, gives vague or
contradictory answers about travel plans, acts unusually polite or
argumentative, wears sunglasses or acts sick. Race isn't cited.

Customs officers can detain people for hours, even days, without allowing
them a telephone call to a lawyer or relative or charging them with a crime.
Inspectors say they keep detainees from making calls so that drug associates
aren't tipped off. Generally, if someone is detained for eight hours or
more, a federal prosecutor is notified.

Richards is among more than 80 black females who filed a class-action
lawsuit claiming they were singled out for strip searches at O'Hare because
of race and gender.

The plaintiffs include a 15-year-old girl, a mentally retarded woman, and a
wheelchair-bound woman. Many decided to sue after seeing news reports on
Chicago's WMAQ-TV about strip searches of black women.

The agency has hired an outside contractor to review how inspectors deal
with the public, and is exploring ways to make the system less hostile. In a
test at Miami and New York airports, some passengers selected for strip
searches are given the option of having an X-ray instead. The service is
also studying new imaging technology that shows things hidden under people's

Customs officers seek passengers' written consent for an X-ray, but it isn't
required. Some travelers say they felt coerced.

Las Vegas police officer Rich Cashton said a Customs inspector who stopped
him at Los Angeles International Airport last year grew angry when Cashton
asked what would happen if he refused an X-ray.

"He said, 'If you don't sign this form, I'm going to take you down to the
hospital and pump your stomach," Cashton recalled. "He was using that threat
as intimidation to make me sign a consent form, which is definitely

Cashton, who identified himself as a police officer, was let go.

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Checked-by: Don Beck