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LI woman sues customs agency, alleging body search violated her rights

A Long Island woman has sued U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, alleging agency officials violated her constitutional rights — and its own rules — by subjecting her to an unwarranted and invasive body search at Kennedy Airport in 2016.

Officers targeted Tameika Lovell, 34, for a body cavity search on Nov. 27, 2016, because of her race as she retrieved her bags at the airport after a trip to Jamaica, according to the lawsuit filed in March in the Eastern Division of U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. Lovell, a school counselor who lives in Nassau County, is black.

In court papers filed on Aug. 1, the Justice Department asked U.S. District Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto to dismiss the case against the agency and the individual officers because they were not properly served and because Congress has not explicitly created ways for citizens to sue the federal government based on constitutional prohibitions against unreasonable searches.

In papers filed Sunday, Lovell’s attorney, Eric Sanders of Manhattan, said the lawsuit had been served properly and the courts have consistently ruled that authorities must have real or reasonable suspicion that a subject is concealing something before a strip search is conducted.

Lovell sought medical treatment at North Shore Long Island Jewish Syosset Hospital immediately after the search and saw a rape counselor for 10 months, according to the complaint. The search left her feeling “violated, shocked and afraid,” the lawsuit states.

Lovell reported the search to the Port Authority police and the Queens district attorney’s office, but prosecutors declined to file charges.

A Customs and Border Protection supervisor told Lovell later that she had been subjected to the search because she travels frequently. “We’re the federal government and we have the right to search you,” the supervisor said, according to the lawsuit.

Sanders said the officers violated Lovell’s rights by searching her without evidence that she had committed a crime.

“You have to have a lot more than ‘I think,’ ” Sanders said Sunday. “That is not enough. You need a lot more than a hunch.”

The lawsuit was first reported by the Center for Public Integrity in a story published Sunday by The Washington Post. The report said the lawsuit, and 10 similar cases that have been filed in California, Arizona, Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania since 2011, raise questions about how border and immigration officers use their authority to search and detain people at the nation’s 328 ports of entry.

“I am confident this is a lot more widespread than the number of lawsuits indicates,” Sanders said.

The lawsuit names the United States, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and five of the agency’s supervisors and officers as defendants. Charles Steven Kleinberg, a federal prosecutor listed as the defendant’s attorney in court papers, did not return a call for comment. Sanders declined to identify the town where Lovell lives or the school where she works.

The lawsuit also alleges the officials violated 2015 agency guidelines defining how searches can be conducted.

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