Published — December 11, 2018

Nigerian-American man alleges nightmare of abuse by border officers at D.C. airport

Ikechukwu “Ike” Owunna, 58, of Upper Marlboro, MD is pictured at an auto shop he works at in Laurel, MD. He is suing the federal government over his treatment at Dulles Airport by Customs and Border Protection in late 2016. (photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

A traveler arriving at Dulles Airport declared he had fruit, and ended up handcuffed, bound and X-rayed at a hospital. 

This story was published in partnership with the Washington Post


Ikechukwu “Ike” Owunna had no reason to expect trouble when he landed at Dulles International Airport on the morning of Dec. 7, 2016.  A U.S. citizen since 2010, Owunna had gone back to his native Nigeria for two weeks to attend a memorial service for his late father.

His plan was to head straight from Dulles to his job at an auto shop in Laurel, Maryland. But once Owunna entered U.S. customs control, his homecoming turned into a nightmare that’s now the subject of a bitter legal battle.

Owunna, 58, was forced into isolation by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers who erroneously suspected that he was smuggling drugs inside his body. CBP considers Nigeria a “known source” country for passengers trying to smuggle ingested drugs.

Officers, according to CBP internal emails, were suspicious because they thought Owunna’s single suitcase contained “nominal clothing that seemed insufficient for a two-week trip.” And Owunna had voluntarily declared he was bringing fruit into the country, an action another officer wrote is considered “a strategy commonly utilized by internal carriers to refocus inspectional efforts.”

Officers cut the fruit open and destroyed it. But the investigation of Owunna was just beginning.  

In a lawsuit filed in May in federal court in Virginia, Owunna asserts that that he was subjected to more than 12 hours of alleged racial profiling, false arrest and imprisonment and other violations of his constitutional right to protection from illegal searches. He also alleges that he was subjected to battery and medical neglect during and after being bound hand-and-foot and driven to Reston Hospital Center in Virginia. There, he says, he underwent, against his will, body exams and X-rays of his abdomen.

“Then I got the bill,” Owunna said in a recent interview. CBP paid the $2,117 bill only after Owunna retained an attorney to contact the hospital.

Airport CBP officers also “called my job, asking what kind of a person I am, how long I had worked there and how steadily,” said Owunna. “It was a real mess.”

In court filings, updated on Dec. 3, CBP officers involved in the search argue that as federal officers, they’re immune from Owunna’s claim for damages and have a “broad mandate” to protect the U.S. borders and to act on reasonable suspicions they have of travelers.

But Owunna’s complaints aren’t unusual.   

His lawsuit resembles 11 other complaints filed since 2011 that were identified  in a Center for Public Integrity report published last August. The 11 other suits, all filed by women, raise allegations of unconstitutional overreach by CBP and other immigration officers at airports, border crossings and in immigration detention. In six cases, disturbing allegations of vaginal and other body cavity probing have resulted in settlements with payouts by the U.S. government totaling more than $1.2 million dollars.

The 11 suits — and now Owunna’s — aren’t a complete picture of the frequency of invasive searches at ports of entry, where federal officials possess enhanced power to search based on reasonable suspicion, a lower threshold than probable cause. Civil rights advocates contend that victims are often too humiliated or intimidated to start a court challenge. Some victims quietly file complaints but don’t go public.

In 2015, a California woman settled for $500,000 from the U.S. government after a CBP officer at a San Diego border crossing, mistaking her for a fugitive with a similar name, allegedly probed the woman’s vagina twice, once using the same gloved hand the officer used to probe three other women detainees. A CBP handbook allows officers to order adult detainees to reveal genitalia and anuses, but officers must justify such demands in writing and cannot touch a detainee’s private parts.

In 2017, an African-American woman settled for $189,500 from the U.S. government and an undisclosed agreement with a hospital after CBP officers took her from the Philadelphia International Airport to the hospital, where she was sedated and her body cavities probed and X-rayed. Detainees, according to the handbook,can only be subjected to X-rays or other medical exams if they consent, if CBP obtains a warrant or a physician declares a detainee is in medical distress.

At least two suits filed this year are still pending. One is on behalf of a 16-year-old Latina girl, C.R., who was allegedly illegally strip searched at a San Diego border crossing in 2017 by CBP officers who shined a flashlight at her bare vagina and rectum. The other suit was filed in New York City by Tameika Lovell, an African-American woman, who alleges that upon arrival at Kennedy International Airport after Thanksgiving in 2016 a CBP officer placed gloved fingers inside her vagina and touched and peered at her buttocks.

Dulles Airport in Virginia, pictured in April 2013. 

CBP suspicions  

CBP denies allegations of invasive searching in the pending San Diego and New York cases.

In one email, a CBP officer wrote: “NOTE: Declaring agriculture products is a common diversionary tactic. … He is constantly rubbing his hands together [and] fidgeting in his chair.” The officer also noted that Owunna had “the same kind of medication” for malaria found on a drug carrier officers had detained previously. “Malaria medicine is used to slow the heart rate,” the officer wrote.

In Owunna’s case, the CBP officers filed internal emails and affidavits in court on Dec. 3 that shed light on what made officers suspicious.   

“What’s at stake here is unfettered and unchecked control by CBP.”

Whitney Fore, Owunna’s attorney

Whitney Fore, Owunna’s Washington D.C.-based attorney, said her client had no problem with officers’ reactions to the fruit he declared.  But she asserted that what followed violated Owunna’s constitutional protections and CBP’s own guidance on reasonable and discrimination-free searches and the right to revoke consent to be X-rayed verbally or “by actions” at any time.

“What’s at stake here is unfettered and unchecked control by CBP,” Fore said.  “And what’s at risk is a person’s civil rights, no less a citizen’s civil rights.”

One of the officers “talked to me very roughly,” Owunna said, “yelling at me like I was a child.”  

The officers cut open the lining of Owanna’s suitcase, patted him down and “insisted,” Owunna’s lawsuit alleges, on watching him urinate multiple times. They were also suspicious about how he purchased his ticket because he initially gave them the wrong credit card information.

“An officer told me, ‘You’re lying. You’re lying,’” Owunna said.

One officer, he said, kept talking to him about people dying from ingesting drugs.

After several hours, officers showed Owunna a consent form to undergo medical exams.  

Owunna signed the form, he alleges, because officers told him “that doing so was the only way he would be released from custody,” according to his suit. To transport him to Reston Hospital Center later that afternoon, officers handcuffed him and taped his legs so he allegedly couldn’t walk, and then carried him from Dulles in view of people, according to the suit.  

CBP officers, in court filings, deny that they pressured Owunna to sign the form or bound him so he couldn’t walk. They do acknowledge that taping pants closed is part of a protocol to prevent suspects from discarding drugs.  

“People in the airport were staring at me,” Owunna said. “I had tears in my eyes.”

“People in the airport were staring at me. I had tears in my eyes.”

Ikechukwu “Ike” Owunna

At the hospital, “crying and embarrassed,” Owunna’s lawsuit says, he told an emergency-room doctor that he had consented under duress and didn’t want to be X-rayed. The suit alleges that two CBP officers were present when he spoke to the doctor.

The physician, Owunna alleges, told him that he was sorry but had no choice. The suit claims the doctor had staff disrobe Owunna and put him in a gown, after which the doctor examined Owunna’s eyes, heart and limbs, palpitated his abdomen and sent him for abdominal X-rays. CBP officers accompanied Owunna from room to room, the suit alleges.

Reston Hospital Center and other medical providers, some of them contract employees, are also named in Owunna’s suit as defendants. False imprisonment, negligence and violations of medical privacy accusations against Reston Hospital Center were dismissed on Nov. 9.  But the court left open the possibility that in response to battery allegations, certain hospital employees could be identified and remain defendants.   

CBP officers deny in court documents that Owunna revoked his consent to be examined.

Reston Hospital Center denies in court filings that “any of its employees participated in the detention and nonconsensual medical examination of Mr. Owunna.” A hospital spokeswoman and a hospital attorney declined to talk about the case.

The hospital argues that the emergency-room physician, Nafis Ahmed, is a contract worker who isn’t subject to hospital control. The hospital also argues that medical defendants were “inappropriately lumped” into Owunna’s suit and that “the only concrete factual allegations regarding false imprisonment are directed toward the governmental defendants.” An attorney representing Ahmed and his direct employer, Emergency Medicine Associates, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In a court filing, Ahmed and Emergency Medicine Associates contend that Owunna agreed to an X-ray.

In 2016, a Latina woman from New Mexico settled a lawsuit with the U.S. government for $450,000 and with an El Paso, Texas, hospital for $1.1 million after CBP officers took her to the hospital for body cavity probes and X-rays. The American Civil Liberties Union represented the woman and sent letters to border hospitals warning them that they risk liability for searches.   

‘Proceed with caution’

Owunna’s lawsuit makes the claim that as a result of alleged racial profiling, “CBP refused to believe that he was not carrying contraband despite having no evidence to the contrary.”

In one email from a CBP superior, officers were warned to “proceed with caution.” CBP officer Deven S. Mackellar said in a declaration submitted to court that “at no point” did he hear Owunna revoke his consent nor did anyone at the hospital advise him he’d revoked his consent.

“I was paying close attention in this regard because my superiors had specifically instructed me that I should notify them if Mr. Owunna ever revoked his consent to be X-rayed,” MacKellar said.

A CBP spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to discuss Owunna’s case or others and emailed a statement: “As a matter of policy, U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not comment on pending litigation.  However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations.”  

CBP representatives also declined to answer questions about whether officers involved in lawsuits that have led to monetary settlements were held administratively accountable for their conduct and decisions. CBP, whose officers assert that they regularly discover contraband hidden in travelers’ body cavities, have declined to release information about how often such discoveries are made.

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President Donald J. Trump, as part of his hardline border stance, issued an executive order in January 2017 aiming to hire 15,000 additional CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, officers. The two agencies are part of the Department of Homeland Security.

But DHS’s Office ofthe Inspector General reported last month that problems with training programs for new hires could present “increasing safety risk to themselves, other law enforcement officers, and anyone within their enforcement authority.” 

After CBP officers were informed that day in December 2016 that X-rays showed no contraband in Owunna’s body, the Nigerian immigrant and U.S. citizen was provided with a “discharge summary” and taken back to Dulles.

Fore said she’s asking for information about how many other travelers arriving at Dulles may have been examined at Reston Medical Center.

Fore said it’s not “fun” for someone to go to court to challenge federal authorities. “I think Ike is very brave,” Fore said,“for going ahead and doing what he’s doing.”

Read more in Inequality, Opportunity and Poverty

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