U.S. customs drug searches raise worries Woman who resisted officers at BWI says she was singled out

'We do certain things'

ACLU leader says officials' discretion raises fairness issue

October 19, 1997|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Rainell Christina Hammond, a 27-year-old Clinton resident, can't take her four children to their favorite all-you-can-eat restaurant in Alexandria, Va. She can't visit friends in nearby Washington. She can't leave Maryland without a probation officer's permission.

Last month, Hammond was sentenced to six months of probation for assaulting a U.S. Customs Service inspector during a struggle in April that occurred after she resisted a strip-search at Baltimore-Washington International Airport when she returned from a trip to Jamaica.

Hammond said she kicked an inspector after four customs officials tackled her when she tried to leave the room to look for a supervisor before consenting to a strip-search.

Her case is similar to that of Peter Jackson, the reggae musician who was detained for more than three hours at BWI last month when he arrived from Jamaica. He was interrogated, strip-searched, handcuffed and taken to a hospital to be X-rayed for drugs, then freed when authorities found none.

Hammond, however, resisted the strip-search, tussled with customs inspectors who tried to restrain her and now is on probation, according to court documents.

Tim Holloran, a customs assistant special agent in charge of investigations in Baltimore, said inspectors were doing their jobs in Hammond's case.

"We do certain things to try and stem the flow of drugs from other countries," Holloran said. "Generally, if you stay out of trouble, you have nothing to hide."

But Dwight Sullivan, staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union's Baltimore office, was enraged.

"This just shows the kinds of abuses that can arise from the discretion that is given to customs officials," Sullivan said.

"They're trying to find people who are running drugs, but because of that, she becomes ensnared in this; she ends up with her liberty deprived for minor conduct that anybody in that situation would have engaged in," he said.

At 8:20 p.m. April 5, Hammond arrived at BWI from Jamaica after visiting her boyfriend. At the customs checkpoint, inspectors searched her bags for drugs and found nothing, she said.

Hammond, a Wendy's restaurant cashier, said inspectors questioned her about why she paid cash for her ticket, where she worked, how much she earned and whom she was visiting in Jamaica. She said they seemed suspicious even after she explained that she had saved for her ticket and had paid for it with cash because she has no credit cards or checking account.

She said the officials also were suspicious because she had been to Jamaica four months earlier to celebrate Christmas with her boyfriend and had been similarly detained in Miami. The Miami inspectors also did not find drugs.

Hammond said inspectors asked her to go to a nearby room, where two female officers instructed her to put her hands against the wall and spread her legs so they could conduct a pat-down search, during which they groped her crotch area.

After that, inspectors insisted on a strip-search. Hammond demanded to see a supervisor and began to walk toward the door. At this point, she said, two more inspectors, including Chief Inspector Will Somers, came into the room. She said Somers pointed his finger in her face and told her she wasn't going anywhere.

When Hammond tried to walk around Somers, the four inspectors tackled her, pinned her to a chair and handcuffed her. During the struggle, she said, she hurt Somers as she tried to push him away.

An affidavit filed by a customs agent tells a different story.

In it, Hammond is described as being "belligerent" several times. It also says "Hammond pushed Inspector [Somers] and threw several punches at him and other inspectors. Hammond threw Inspector Judy Vogelpohl into a wall, injuring her shoulder, and kicked Inspector [Somers] in the left knee."

Hammond said she later was strip-searched, taken to North Arundel Hospital in Glen Burnie to be X-rayed and examined, and spent the rest of the weekend in the Baltimore City Detention Center on charges of assaulting two customs inspectors. The inspectors found no drugs.

Hammond's lawyer, Paul Hazle-hurst, an assistant federal public defender, said she was acquitted of one of the charges because of insufficient evidence and was convicted last month in U.S. District Court in Baltimore of assaulting Somers.

Somers, who said he had to take three days off from work because of his knee injury, said Hammond's case is rare. Fewer than 1 percent of passengers arriving at BWI from other countries are subjected to strip-searches, and most comply, he said. But Somers, who also is a supervisor, said cases in which people object to questioning and searches are becoming more common.

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