The American Civil Liberties Union is advising hospitals in border states of their rights when confronted by federal agents requesting they perform body-cavity searches—and the hospitals' potential liability if they comply.
ACLU affiliates sent letters Thursday to healthcare systems that operate 110 hosptials in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.
Each letter referenced a case involving a 54-year-old New Mexico woman who in 2012 was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and subjected to a body cavity search performed by hospital personnel at University Medical Center of El Paso (Texas).
The woman, with help from the ACLU, eventually filed a lawsuit against the hospital, which settled the case for $1.1 million in 2014.
On Thursday, the customs agency agreed to pay $475,000 to settle a suit brought by the woman, who accused agents of subjecting her to a strip search out of suspicion that she was carrying drugs. After none was found, agents allegedly transported her to University Medical Center, where she was forced to undergo an X-ray, CT scan, and a cavity search without her consent or a search warrant. No drugs were recovered.
In an email response, the agency confirmed a settlement with the plaintiff, referred to in the lawsuit as “Jane Doe,” but added that the agreement should not be taken as an admission of liability.
“The settlement was entered into by both parties in order to compromise on disputed claims and avoid the expenses of further litigation,” wrote CBP spokesman Carlos Diaz. “CBP has policies, procedures and training in place to ensure officers and agents treat travelers and those in custody with professionalism and courtesy, while protecting the civil rights, civil liberties, and well-being of every individual with whom we interact, and maintaining the focus of our mission to protect all citizens and visitors to the United States.”
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff claims she was subsequently billed more than $5,400 by University Medical Center for the cost of services related to the search.
“The risk that this kind of trauma could occur to any individual in the future is reason enough for us to advisement to hospitals,” said Edgar Saldivar, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas.
Saldivar said it's not clear how often healthcare providers work with law enforcement to conduct such searches, and he acknowledged the case involving Jane Doe was an extreme instance of the scenario. But he said it was far from unique.
A similar lawsuit was filed in June involving Ashley Cervantes, a U.S. citizen from Arizona who was subjected to a body cavity search in 2014 when she returned to the U.S. after walking across the border into Mexico to have breakfast. The lawsuit claims CBP agents strip searched Cervantes, who was 18 at the time, to look for drugs. When they did not find any, they allegedly transported her to Holy Cross Hospital, in Nogales, where she underwent a body cavity search by a physician.
Holy Cross is a part of the Carondelet Health Network, which was acquired last September in a joint venture between San Francisco-based Dignity Health, St. Louis-based Ascension Health and majority-owner Tenet Healthcare of Dallas.
Saldivar said during their investigation as part of the Jane Doe case it became apparent that some healthcare providers don't know their rights when law enforcement officers ask them to perform a body-cavity search.
“It's possible that medical personnel don't have a complete understanding of not just the limits of what they can do but the limits of what CBP agents can do.” Carondelet was among the health systems that were sent the ACLU letter.
The Fourth Amendment protects against what can be deemed as “unreasonable searches and seizures,” which requires authorities to obtain a warrant before performing body searches. Healthcare personnel are never required if ordered by law enforcement to perform a body cavity search, according to the policies stated in Customs and Border Protection's Personal Search Handbook.
It also states that when an individual is brought to a medical facility for a search, all medical decisions, including intrusive procedures such as body cavity searches, are solely made by the medical personnel.