Ikechukwu “Ike” Owunna didn’t expect trouble upon landing at Dulles International Airport on the morning on Dec. 7, 2016. A U.S. citizen since 2010, Owunna was returning from a two-week trip to his native Nigeria to attend a memorial service for his late father.
He planned to head from Dulles to his job at an auto shop in Laurel, Md. But 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.
According to emails disclosed through a lawsuit filed in May in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, officers were suspicious because Owunna’s suitcase contained “nominal clothing that seemed insufficient for a two-week trip.”
Owunna, who lives in Upper Marlboro, Md., had also voluntarily declared he was carrying fruit, an action officers identified as “a strategy commonly utilized” by drug smugglers “to refocus inspectional efforts.” CBP considers Nigeria a “known source” country for smugglers.
The lawsuit says Owunna was subjected to more than 12 hours of alleged racial profiling, false imprisonment and other violations of the constitutional protection against illegal searches. He also alleges that he was subjected to battery and medical neglect during and after being bound and driven to Reston Hospital Center in Virginia, where he says he was examined against his will as part of the federal agency’s effort to determine whether he was carrying drugs.
“CBP refused to believe that he was not carrying contraband despite having no evidence,” the lawsuit says.
A CBP spokesman declined to comment other than to say in an email that “lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations.”
In court filings, CBP officers argue that as federal officers, they’re immune from Owunna’s claim and have a “broad mandate” to protect U.S. borders and act on reasonable suspicions they have of travelers. A hearing on a CBP motion to dismiss the suit is set for Jan. 4.
Owunna’s complaints aren’t unusual. His lawsuit resembles 11 complaints filed since 2011 that allege unconstitutional treatment at airports, border crossings and immigration detention and were identified in a Center for Public Integrity report published in The Washington Post in August. In six of the cases, allegations of body-cavity probing have resulted in settlements with the government totaling more than $1.2 million.
In 2015, a California woman settled for $500,000 after a CBP officer at a San Diego border crossing, who mistook her for a fugitive with a similar name, allegedly probed the woman’s vagina twice, once with the same gloved hand used to probe the genitals of three other women.
A CBP handbook says officers may order adult detainees to reveal genitalia and anuses. But officers cannot touch detainees’ private parts or force them to submit to X-rays or medical exams unless officers obtain consent, a warrant or a physician’s declaration.
In 2017, a woman settled for $189,500 from the government and an undisclosed agreement with a hospital after CBP officers took her from the Philadelphia International Airport to the hospital, where her body cavities were probed and X-rayed.
The agency has been in the spotlight recently, as President Trump tries to slow the flow of migrants into the country and boost the number of officers stationed on the southwest border.
At least two suits that allege racial profiling were filed this year — by a 16-year-old Latina girl in San Diego and an African American woman in New York — and are pending.
In Owunna’s case, officers filed internal emails and affidavits in court that say they suspected him because he was “constantly rubbing his hands together” and was carrying “the same kind of medication” to prevent malaria found on a recent drug carrier, which the officer said can be used to slow the heart rate.
Whitney Fore, Owunna’s attorney, said her client’s experience violated CBP’s own guidance on reasonable searches and the right to revoke consent to medical exams.
The officers “insisted” on watching Owunna urinate multiple times, the lawsuit alleges, and questioned him for hours.
Owunna said he signed a form consenting to a medical exam because officers allegedly told him that “doing so was the only way he would be released.”
The lawsuit says Owunna told an emergency-room doctor he had consented under duress and did not want to be examined, but the physician said he had no choice. The doctor examined Owunna’s body surface, palpitated his abdomen and sent him for abdominal X-rays.
Reston Hospital Center and other medical providers were named in the lawsuit. The hospital was dismissed in November, but the court left open the possibility that hospital employees could remain defendants in battery allegations.
CBP officers, in court filings, deny pressuring Owunna to sign the form or binding him so he couldn’t walk, and say Owunna did not revoke his consent.
Hospital officials had no comment but denied the allegations in court filings.
The hospital sent Owunna a $2,117 bill for the medical procedures, which CBP paid after the hospital was contacted by Owunna’s attorney.
CBP officers also “called my job, asking what kind of a person I am, how long I had worked there,” Owunna said in an interview. “It was a real mess.”
After X-rays showed no contraband in Owunna’s body, he was returned to Dulles.
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington.