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Flying while brown

Here's a classic example of what happens when our law enforcement bases its suspicions on the color of someone's skin.

Stories like this one make me wonder: what does more harm? The drugs, or the drug war?
SAN FRANCISCO ( AP ) - A woman held for 22 hours at San Francisco International Airport, strip-searched and forced to take laxatives by Customs agents during a futile search for drugs has been awarded $450,000 by a federal court jury.

Lawyers for Amanda Buritica of Port Chester, N.Y., argued the agents at SFO 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," her lawyer, Gregory M. Fox, said.

A government lawyer countered that agents had several reasons for suspicion: Buritica was 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- wore loose clothing, carried no mementos from her trip and was unresponsive to questions.

But 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 to do so 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 bodycavity search of a passenger was ruled illegal.

U.S. District Judge Vaughm Walker will decide at a later date whether to order changes in Customs' local search policies and training procedures. He could also order additional damages against the government.

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 comment. She has asked Walker to overturn the verdict and dismiss the suit on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence of an unreasonable, search or inadequate training.

Buritica, then 50, a Colombian-born U.S. citizen, was returning from a round-the-world trip when she was detained at San Francisco International Airport in September 1994. After a luggage search, she was patted down, then strip-searched, X-rayed, and sent to a hospital for administration of a strong purgative.

She testified she was told she would be forcibly fed the purgative if she refused to drink it. Two agents watched her continuously while she used a portable toilet repeatedly during an eight-hour period, she said. After finally concluding she had no drugs in her system, the agents left the room, but no one told her she was free to leave for six to eight hours, she said.

Fox said local U.S. Customs agents randomly select passengers for scrutiny as possible drug couriers, without any grounds for suspicion. Even after reasonable suspicion justifies an initial search, he said, an intensified search should be prohibited unless agents find some evidence of smuggling and consider the passenger's innocent explanations.


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