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The Price of Complacency

By Nora Callahan

In September, 1994 Amanda Buritica of Port Chester, N.Y. was subject to an airport search. What makes a person "subject" to search? After all, it would be good to know. No person would want to go through what this gentle woman did. According to a government attorney the following made her "subject" to search: Buritica was a woman in her 50s, traveling alone, on a Singapore Airlines flight from Hong Kong-a "high-risk flight" from a city that is a common source of drugs. She wore loose clothing, carried no mementos from her trip and was unresponsive to questions.

What can take place after a person has been singled out for a search? Let us look at what Amanda Buritica experienced.

First her luggage was searched. They found nothing. She was detained and patted down. Nothing was found. Was she free to go? No. Next she had to take off her clothing and submit to a strip search. Not finding any drugs hidden in her ears, hair, vagina or rectum, she was still not free to go. They x-rayed her next.

Buritica did not have any drugs hidden anywhere. She had no drugs in her suitcase or her clothing. She had no drugs that custom officials could find when they probed her body cavities. No drugs were discovered when they x-rayed her.

Was she then free to go? No, custom's officials took her to a hospital where the Colombian born­­U.S. citizen was then purged. Even at the insistence that she was sick with diarrhea and after custom's agents found anti-diarrhea medicines with her belongings, the woman was given harsh laxatives.

Amanda Buritica recently testified in federal court that she was told she would be forcibly fed the purgative if she refused to drink it.

For eight hours customs agents watched her defecate into a portable commode. Then they left. It was six to eight hours before they returned to release her. The ordeal had lasted 22 hours.

Buritica sued because there was no reason to suspect her to start with. When each search proved fruitless, they intensified the next.

The tax-payers will foot the bill­­to the tune of a $451,000 award plus court costs. Makes a person wonder what was going through the minds of the custom agents. Particularly, John Petrin, chief Customs inspector at the airport. He'd been through this before when a 1989 a body cavity search of a passenger was ruled illegal. The jury awarded Amanda an extra $1,000, finding Petrin guilty of malicious conduct.

We will pay still more, however. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gail Killefer has asked U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker to overturn the verdict and dismiss the suit. We pay Killefer's salary and Judge Walker's. We pay their paralegals and their clerks. We pay for the paper used to file this dribble. We pay and we pay and we pay.

Amanda Buritica paid, too. She paid the price of humiliation and physical discomfort, if not outright physical danger. She had no Constitutional right to unreasonable search and seizure because she had fit an obscure "profile of a drug courier." She had no constitutional right to refuse to be searched, only the right to bring a lawsuit after the fact. Even after she prevailed and jury concluded she had been wronged, it isn't over.

Charles Becton, a former judge with the North Carolina Court of Appeals, studied court cases involving drug courier profiles. His report in the North Carolina Law Review, included these behaviors that may initiate a detention at an airport:

· Making no ticket reservation and making a recent reservation;

· Taking direct flights to and from source cities such as Miami, Los Angeles and Dallas and taking circuitous routes from source cities;

· Leaving the terminal directly in a hurried manner, or staying at the terminal a long time;

· Carrying no luggage and carrying two suitcases that appear to be heavy.

Our Constitution is supposed to protect us from unreasonable search and seizure, but a vague "profile" that can render you detained, stripped, prodded, x-rayed and purged has superseded our rights. The "profile" fits any harried traveler catching a flight!

Any travel can subject you to search. Buses and trains are boarded by DEA and FBI routinely across the country. We don't know how many people are searched each year. Loose statistical data shows that as many as 86 percent of the people stopped are not drug couriers. We don't know how much, or what drugs are seized from the few fruitful searches that do lead to arrest. We do know that 75 percent of seizure and arrests result from investigation and leads­­and this figure is wrapped up into the random search data. Successful searches of random citizens are very rare. The DEA does not have to produce data to justify the cost, the direct monetary costs or the cost of lost rights.

The propaganda of the last thirty years, incessant cries from politicians that we must get "tougher yet" on drugs has mesmerized the American public to accept erosion of our basic constitutional rights. It is only after a complacent citizen is subjected to the humiliation of being suspect that they complain. Few can seek restitution from the courts because it takes money, lots of money to go against Uncle Sam. By far the majority of our humiliated citizens and visitors simply wipe off what they can of the lubricating jelly, put their clothes back on and try to forget the ugly, humiliating experience.

An excerpt from Customs Service:

Drug Interdiction Efforts

Briefing Report, 09/26/96, GAO/GGD-96-189BR

Inspectors, using behavioral analysis and the results of pre-arrival reviews, determine whether to refer passengers to secondary for a more thorough examination. The examination may have included detailed questioning, searching of baggage, and searching of the passenger. Inspectors refer drug couriers and "swallowers" to agents from the Office of Investigation for further investigation.

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