Jury Awards $450,000 to Passenger
SAN FRANCISCO--A woman held for 22 hours, strip searched and forced to take laxatives by customs agents during a futile search for drugs has been awarded $450,000 by a federal jury.
Lawyers for Amanda Buritica of Port Chester, N.Y., argued the agents at San Francisco International Airport had no reason to suspect her of being a drug courier, intensified their search when they found no evidence and ignored the fact she was already suffering from diarrhea. Agents found anti-diarrhea
medicine in their initial search."The more they searched, the less they found, and the less they found, the more suspicious they became," said her lawyer, Gregory M. Fox.
A government lawyer countered that agents had several reasons for suspicion. They described Ms. Buritica as 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 -and wearing loose clothing, carrying no mementos and unresponsive to questions.
Ms. Buritica, then 50, a Colombian-born U.S. citizen, was returning from a round-the-world trip in September 1994 when she was detained.
The U.S. District Court jury on Tuesday found the search unreasonable and awarded $225,000 in damages against each of two customs agents involved in the search. The government usually pays such damages against its employees, although Assistant U.S. Attorney Gail Killefer said no decision has been made yet.
Jurors also ordered punitive damages of $1,000 for malicious conduct against John Petrin, chief customs inspector at the airport, who was also involved in a 1989 case before the same judge in which a body-cavity search of a passenger was ruled illegal.
U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker will decide at a later date whether to order changes in the U.S. Customs Service's local search policies and trainingprocedures. He could also order additional damages against the government.
Ms. Buritica, who said she lost her job because of stress from the incident, told reporters the damages did not make up for her ordeal, "but I am glad that the jury realized that they did something very awful to me."
Killefer declined to comment. She has asked Walker to overturn the verdict and dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that there was insufficient evidence of an unreasonable search or inadequate training