Today, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas, the University of Texas Civil Rights Clinic, and the Law Office of Gilberto Hinojosa & Associates announced a settlement in which the U.S. Government paid $85,000 to a U.S. citizen with a physical disability who suffered an unconstitutional and vicious takedown by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent at the Brownsville Port of Entry while trying to watch the search of her purse. The agent’s attack of our client, coupled with her subsequent, unwarranted arrest, violated her Fourth Amendment rights to be free from excessive force and unreasonable seizure.
“While we are satisfied with having obtained justice for our client, this incident only highlights the urgency for long overdue reforms to our border security force,” said Edgar Saldivar, Senior Staff Attorney of the ACLU of Texas. “As the largest law enforcement agency in the nation, CBP must commit to de-escalation training, implement the Department of Justice’s 21st-century policing standards, and re-evaluate what constitutes an appropriate reaction to a suspected offense, particularly when dealing with vulnerable populations like individuals with disabilities.”
Our client, a resident of Brownsville, has worked at a duty-free store near the Port of Entry since 2005. She is 4’11”, weighs 110 pounds, and has visible malformations of her hands and feet. On November 5, 2012, a CPB Officer stopped her after she was leaving her place of work and searched her car after confirming she had obtained permission from another agent to use a return lane from the Port of Entry. Our client did not interfere with the search and no illegal items were found. Yet when she asked the CBP Officer about his search of her handbag, he threw her to the ground with such force that her jeans ripped open and she suffered a large knee wound as well as several cuts and abrasions on her elbows. The Officer then put his full weight—roughly double that of her own—on our client’s small frame and handcuffed her so tightly that they rubbed her forearm skin raw and left open wounds. Ultimately, the fire department had to remove her handcuffs. After nearly an hour and a half of detention, our client was finally released from custody—never charged with any offense.
“This is the second time this year we’ve had to explain to CBP what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to ‘securing the border’,” said Terri Burke, Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas. “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.”
Last July, the ACLU of Texas secured a record settlement from CBP for an anonymous client who suffered abuse at the border after agents forced her to undergo six hours of illegal searches—including an observed bowel movement, an X-ray, a speculum exam of her vagina, a bimanual vaginal and rectal exam, and a CT scan. No drugs were found. No warrant was ever obtained.