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New lawsuit alleges unreasonable search in NM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Another lawsuit has been filed over an unreasonable search by a New Mexico law enforcement agency along the Mexico border, the latest in a handful of similar cases.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque alleges police illegally took a New Mexico woman's car in Lordsburg, a town in Hidalgo County. When she tried to retrieve it four days later, she was forced to strip naked and a female officer visually inspected her body cavities, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit comes after Hidalgo County and the city of Deming recently agreed to pay $1.6 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a man taken to two hospitals and subjected to anal probes over suspicion of hiding drugs.

According to the suit, Lordsburg police officers stopped Lori Ford, 54, of Silver City, and a friend who was driving her car for speeding in March 2012. After Ford refused to let police search her vehicle without a warrant, officers ordered a K-9 to sniff the car for drugs and then seized the car while getting a search warrant after a nearly two-hour wait, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, said Ford did not hear from authorities about her vehicle's location and only went to pick it up after being tipped off by a friend.

After she arrived to retrieve the car, Ford was arrested and taken to a secluded room with several male officers, court papers say. She refused to answer questions and asked to be taken to the Hidalgo County Detention Center so she could pay a bond, if necessary.

At the jail, a female officer was called in to conduct a search. After apologizing to Ford, the officer made her strip and get into a degrading position while the officer visually inspected Ford's anal and vaginal cavities, the lawsuit alleges.

"This was an illegal and unreasonable search," Ford's attorney, Shannon Kennedy, told The Associated Press. "It's disgusting. It's a sexual assault."

Ford was charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia- items police said were found in the car- but those charges were later dropped after officers failed to produce the evidence.

Lordsburg Police Chief Marcus Martinez and Hidalgo County officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Ford seeks an unspecified amount for legal fees and damages.

Another lawsuit filed in November accuses the Hidalgo County sheriff's office of illegally subjecting drug suspects to invasive body cavity searches. In that case, a man said he was strip-searched in a gas station parking lot, then taken to a hospital for an illegal cavity search.

A lawsuit in U.S. District Court in El Paso, Texas, also is pending against federal agents over a similar search of a New Mexico woman crossing from Mexico through El Paso.

Kennedy said her law firm is getting a number of calls about similar cases along the New Mexico-Mexico border. She believes law enforcement agencies are under pressure to spend federal drug-fighting money but are overstepping their authority.

"They are detaining people for long periods of time while going on fishing expeditions," Kennedy said. "They are subjecting people to unconstitutional searches, and for what?"

Adam Perlmutter, a New York attorney who has written about body cavity searches, said federal courts have ruled that body cavity searches are allowed in felony cases. In suspected misdemeanor cases, officers need a "reasonable, articulated basis" to perform a body cavity search.

"They can state a clear reason for believing that a search is needed, especially if they are look for contraband or narcotics," he said.

Perlmutter said law enforcement agencies typically have officers of the same gender as the suspect conduct such searches to avoid charges of sexual assault.

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras


(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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