Free society should have fewer customs searches

July 04, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

MINNIE Colclough went to Jamaica and met her true love in a nightclub. Her beloved soon became her betrothed; and she returned to Jamaica to celebrate Valentine's Day of 1999 with the Jamaican lad, who works as a carpenter. Colclough returned on March 16.

But not without incident. U.S. customs agents saw not a woman in love returning from visiting her fiance. They saw a potential menace. According to Colclough, they checked her luggage. Then, they checked her, body cavities and all.

It wasn't the first time, the Baltimore County black woman said. It happened when she returned from Jamaica on Jan. 16 and when she arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Nov. 22. Three luggage and cavity searches in four trips.

"I find these searches to be discriminating, as well as humiliating," Colclough protested in a letter she later gave to Nevett Steele Jr., her lawyer. Most of the people on her three return flights were white, and Colclough noticed they passed through customs without a problem.

Colclough made a complaint to Carole Graves of the customs investigations unit in Baltimore. Graves verified that Colclough had made a complaint but said customs records show that Colclough was given a pat-down search on March 16 only. There was no cavity check. Graves said people who are cavity-checked are taken to a hospital, where a doctor performs the task. Colclough never went to the hospital.

As for why Colclough was given a pat-down search, Graves would say only that customs agents need "strong, articulable reasons" for searching passengers.

"We had strong, articulable reasons for conducting the pat-down," Graves said. She refused to say what those reasons were. Nor were any given to Colclough.

Dennis Murphy, a customs spokesman in the Washington office, said the differences in Colclough's and Graves' accounts may be one of perception. Several dozen black women have filed a class-action lawsuit against the customs agency, alleging they were subjected to body-cavity searches. One woman, appearing in a "Dateline" segment on the subject about two months ago, charged that customs agents forced her to remove a tampon.

"Some of the women involved in the lawsuit were asked to remove tampons," Murphy acknowledged, "and they felt it was a body-cavity search." Customs agents, Murphy emphasized, are expressly forbidden to conduct cavity searches.

"The risks are enormous to do a cavity search," Murphy said. "If customs officers were to conduct a search, they might rupture something."

The explanations of Murphy and Graves would sound oh-so-reasonable were it not for one thing: What woman wouldn't find being forced to remove a tampon as humiliating, degrading and intrusive an experience as a body-cavity search? I don't think I'd be going out on a limb if I suggested that most women regard their menstrual experience as a deeply personal thing.

Murphy wants Americans to think about the alternative. There is as yet, Murphy said, no technology to detect drugs hidden on or within people.

"You have to look at the issue from the standpoint of what happens if we did nothing," Murphy noted. "The preponderance of heroin seized at the border is seized on or in people. The growing threat among our teen-age population is heroin. If we were not doing this at all, it would open the floodgates for people to bring in heroin unimpeded."

To drive home his point, Murphy stressed that of the 1,882 pounds of heroin customs seized in 1998, more than 1,300 pounds -- about 71 percent -- were on people or in their body cavities.

Such clarion cautions and stunning statistics must be lost on the women who were innocent of drug smuggling and searched anyway.

"I'm not a drug mule," Colclough said, "and I never would be." She stands by her assertion that she was searched three times.

Customs agents found no drugs on Colclough or on any of the women involved in the class-action suit. But customs agents insist that to keep heroin from drug-using idiots in these United States, it might be necessary to subject innocent women to degrading and humiliating searches at our airports based on "strong, articulable reasons."

Here's where every American -- as we go out, cook out and whoop up how free we are this Fourth of July holiday -- should have a problem with the customs agency's warped phrase "strong, articulable reasons" for conducting a search. We should first be appalled at the horrendous abuse of the English language. Reasons are by definition "articulable." And whatever the "strong, articulable reasons" are, they are the very antithesis of what every American should cherish: the presumption of innocence.

This is supposedly a free society. Let's keep it free, end customs searches of innocent citizens and take our chances if the country is flooded with more heroin. Free societies are not necessarily safe ones.

Pub Date: 7/04/99

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