Doctors' Body Cavity Search Ends in $1.5 Million Settlement

Doctors who did body cavity searches of a drug suspect without a warrant were named in two out-of-court settlements totaling $1.5 million. The ACLU says the practice is common and doctors should feel free to refuse despite pressure from law enforcement.

Two Texas physicians who followed law enforcement’s orders to forcibly perform cavity searches of a woman suspected of carrying drugs were named in an out-of-court settlement in which the woman received $475,000 for her humiliating treatment. She was found not to be concealing drugs.

The lesson for doctors, according to lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is that physicians and other hospital personnel cannot be ordered by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers to perform such searches or other invasive procedures on suspects without a warrant for such a search.

The ACLU’s Texas and New Mexico divisions have sent letters warning 110 health care institutions in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California that they could be liable for damages in similar cases.

“When doctors are confronted by armed law enforcement officers it is an awkward, uncomfortable situation,” said Edgar Saldivar, an ACLU senior attorney, discussing the case in an interview, “We are letting doctors know they have rights in these cases.”

Though the case directly involved the four Southwestern states, the practice of ordering suspects to submit to such searches—and of pressuring medical personnel to do them—could well apply in any jurisdiction with an international airport, as well as in all states with border crossings. If the suspect objects, there has to be a search warrant, Saldivar said.

The 2012 incident that led to today’s settlement began when the plaintiff, 54, a US Citizen was returning to her home in the US at a border crossing in El Paso, TX.

The customs officers said a drug-sniffing dog had signaled that the woman might be carrying drugs. She was first strip-searched by the customs agents. When they found no contraband they took her to the hospital in handcuffs.

According to the complaint in the suit, as part of her six-hour ordeal, physicians at the hospital gave vaginal and rectal exams then forced her to take a laxative to induce a bowel movement, an act they observed.

She also underwent a CT scan, which proved negative.

The other allegations in the lawsuit filed by the ACLU were that her privacy was not protected during vaginal and rectal exams, which were observed both by the Customs agents and by passersby in hospital corridors since the door to her exam room was left open.

According to the complaint, the hospital also billed her for the CT scan and exams as medical services.

“This was a particularly egregious case,” Saldivar said.

The plaintiff also earlier was awarded $1.1 million in a settlement with the hospital.