Unscheduled departure for a Jamaican at BWI After a strip-search for drugs, he's taken to hospital for X-rays

October 01, 1997|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

A Jamaican musician who said he came to the Washington area with high hopes for a new album said he was detained by U.S. Customs officers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, strip-searched for drugs, then handcuffed and taken to a hospital to be X-rayed and examined in a search for smuggled drugs.

Peter Jackson, a 26-year-old reggae artist who goes by the stage name Galaxy P., said he flew into BWI from Montego Bay about 9 p.m. Thursday. He said he was stopped at the customs checkpoint after he picked up his bags, taken to a nearby room, intimidated, questioned and then strip-searched. He said he was not allowed to make a phone call.

A customs spokesman said: "We're sorry [Jackson] was caused delay, but given the spread of how much heroin is on streets in the United States, it's a small price to pay. That is the price of trying to keep these drugs out."

The spokesman, Bill Anthony, said the search was in accordance with proper procedure. He said customs officers at BWI have been especially watchful because of the increase in drug trafficking arrests at the airport within the past two years. He said officers thought it strange that Jackson had no money and that he appeared nervous and gave inconsistent answers. "A few years ago, inspectors would catch [a person smuggling drugs in a body cavity] every six months," Anthony said. "Now, it's one every week."

Jackson said that four customs officers questioned him.

"I told them, I'm clean, I've never been convicted, I never do drugs, I don't even smoke cigarettes," Jackson said yesterday from a Silver Spring motel room, where he was staying before going on a promotional tour in New Jersey and New York.

"But they kept saying, 'Tell us the truth because I know you're lying.' They kept saying they'd shoot me if I ran, stuff like that. I was afraid they were going to kill me."

At one point, he said the officers made him put his hands on the wall and spread his legs so they could search his body cavity. He said they also crushed vitamin E and other dietary supplement tablets he had in his bag to check for drugs.

Handcuffed

Jackson said the officers yelled at him and banged their hands on a table to scare him several times. He said he began crying when the officers told him they were taking him to a hospital to be X-rayed and that they would handcuff him and do it by force if he didn't sign a form agreeing to it.

He said even though he signed the paper, officers took him to Glen Burnie's North Arundel Hospital in handcuffs. There, he said he was stripped, X-rayed and a doctor examined his mouth and ears and prodded his belly for concealed drugs.

Hospital officials said he was released shortly before 1 a.m.

Anthony said Jackson's case is common. He did not know how many people are detained every day, but said that at each of the nation's airports, two to three suspected drug smugglers are taken daily to hospitals for X-rays.

He said whenever these suspects are transported, they're always handcuffed for the officers' safety.

"If it happened to me, I'd be as mad as he was," Anthony said. "But I'd rather have the press yelling at [the officers] than have them have bullets in their heads."

Jackson was not allowed a phone call because technically, he had not been arrested, and the officers did not want to tip off anyone whom he could have been giving the drugs, Anthony said. He also said customs officers do not detain suspects based on profiles, but that they do target certain countries from which drugs tend to come.

He said officers also look out for people who are "acting nervously, or if a [trained] dog sits next to him because it smells something like drugs, and with a lot of inspectors, it's sort of a gut feeling."

"[Jackson's] case was not a case of discrimination," Anthony added.

This ambiguity concerns members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. Dennis Court- land Hayes, the NAACP's general counsel, said he is concerned that airport security officials could be detaining suspects based on profiles.

"What they're saying is that, as a matter of official policy, they don't [profile]," Hayes said. "But those policies are carried out by individuals. The climate plays itself out too often to the disadvantage of minorities and black people."

Similar experiences

Dwight Sullivan, staff counsel at the ACLU's Baltimore office, said he has received at least three complaints from African-Americans within the past year who have had similar experiences with customs officers at BWI. Sullivan said his office has been investigating those complaints since June.

"So often, the government will stand by the argument that they have a right to police the borders, but how many people are going to be harmed in the process?" Sullivan asked. "If you give people unfettered discretion, it will result in abuse, and this case sounds like it's very illustrative of that.

"We need to impose a higher burden on law enforcement officials before they can subject individuals coming across the border to invasions of their privacy."

Michael Sietz-Honig, vice president of marketing at Peter Pan Industries Inc., the Newark, N.J.-record company that represents Jackson, said, "Even if he was suspected of having drugs, they could have dealt with him with some form of decorum." Sietz-Honig said company attorneys are looking into filing a lawsuit. He said the company also is creating a Web page inviting people who have had similar experiences to contact him.

Anthony has advice for anyone similarly detained: "Cooperate."

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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