2 women sue Customs Service, claim improper searches at BWI

Federal lawsuit seeks $6 million in damages

April 18, 2000|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Two Maryland women filed suit yesterday against the U.S. Customs Service, claiming they were improperly strip-searched by agents at Baltimore-Washington International Airport after they arrived on overseas flights.

The suit filed by Minnie Colclough of Woodlawn and Gena Selby of Baltimore in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt seeks $6 million in damages and follows by a week a report by the investigative arm of Congress that found that African-American women returning from international trips were ordered by customs agents to remove their clothes or have their belongings X-rayed far more often than other passengers. Both women are black.

"I'm not a mule," said Colclough, referring to the street term for people who carry drugs for dealers. "I would never take in drugs through my body.

"I feel like I was humiliated. I want justification. I want fairness," she added.

Customs agents found no drugs on either woman and no charges were filed against them, according to the lawsuit, one of dozens pending around the country making similar allegations.

Efforts to reach customs officials yesterday were unsuccessful. The customs office in Baltimore referred questions to headquarters in Washington. A recording there said the office was closed because of protests at meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Last week, after the report by the General Accounting Office requested by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, customs officials said the agency conducts far fewer intrusive searches.

Edward J. Connor, attorney for Colclough and Selby, agreed that customs has improved the way it conducts searches since his clients were detained in late 1998 and early last year.

"The number of intrusive searches is substantially down and the ethnicity is much more balanced," Connor acknowledged.

But he said his clients were entitled to substantial damages for their suffering.

"Customs has a duty to stop illegal drugs coming into the county," he said. "But they have to have an articulable basis for suspicion. If the reason is you're single, black and female, it's against everything the country stands for."

Except for their itineraries, the stories of Colclough and Selby, who had not met until yesterday when their lawsuit was filed, are strikingly similar.

Colclough, a 38-year-old telemarketer, said in an interview that she was detained and strip-searched when she returned from Jamaica in November 1998 and January and March 1999 -- the first time on vacation, the other two to visit a friend she had met on her first trip.

"They asked me why I traveled so close together," said Colclough.

Colclough said she had planned another trip in May last year but returned the ticket.

"I was too afraid," she said.

Selby, 41, a painter and makeup artist from West Baltimore, said she was detained and strip-searched when she returned to BWI from London in February 1999.

"I wasn't angry, I was terrified," she said.

"Had I not been as subservient as I could be and they wanted to plant something on me, who would have believed me?" she asked.

Connor said he is investigating claims similar to those of Colclough and Selby from about a dozen women.

He filed a similar suit against customs last year on behalf of a Prince George's County woman. In that case, the woman, upset with her detention, got into an altercation with agents that led to her conviction on an assault charge. Her civil suit was dismissed.

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