TORONTO — Three Canadian women have launched legal action alleging they were molested by female U.S. border guards while attempting to cross the border near Windsor, Ont.
In court documents filed in the U.S., Leslie Ingratta of Windsor alleges two customs and border protection officers took her to a holding cell for questioning when she attempted to cross the Detroit-Windsor tunnel on Jan. 30, 2011 for a shopping trip to the states.
The lawsuit alleges officials questioned Ingratta repeatedly and accused her of lying about her reasons to travel before ordering her to face a wall. With her arms and legs spread, the officials conducted a search that included putting their hands under her bra and fondling her breasts, as well as grabbing her buttocks and rubbing her genitals, the suit alleges.
She was then taken back to the waiting room, crying and shaking, and told she was “clear to enter the United States.”
“By this point, plaintiff was too traumatized to continue on her trip and returned to Canada,” court documents read.
In a second, joint lawsuit two women from Windsor and Milton, Ont. — both frequent travellers to the country and holders of Nexus cards and Visas — claim they were strip-searched in an inappropriate manner while travelling together across the Ambassador Bridge on March 5, 2010 to attend a concert.
They allege the guards put their fingers into their anuses and vaginas, and fondled each of their bare breasts “in a prolonged, deliberate manner.”
One of the women was eight months pregnant at the time.
All the searches, the documents allege, were conducted without any reasonable suspicion that that type of search was warranted.
None of the allegations have been tested in court.
“It is proper under some circumstances for a security pat-down to be performed, or even a limited personal search if there’s reasonable suspicion that a person is concealing contraband on his or her body,” said Thomas Wienner, a Rochester, Mich.-based lawyer, who represents all three women.
“But there is a big difference between that and what amounts to sexual groping, which is what happened with each of the women involved in these cases.
“These women were sexually molested at the border and there’s just no excuse for that.”
Given that a similar lawsuit had been previously filed by fourth woman, Wienner said he believes there could be more victims.
The current lawsuits are separate and more victims won’t result in a class action, however, because the circumstances from each case are such that class-action treatment isn’t appropriate, he added.
Wienner also said it’s not yet known if the same guards were involved in all the incidents, since their identities will not be known until their files are disclosed as part of the lawsuit.
The cases will be heard in a federal court in Michigan even though all the complainants are Canadian.
“If you have voluntary contacts with the U.S., including crossing at the border, then the law in the U.S. is clear that you are entitled to be protected by the fourth amendment to our constitution which prohibits unreasonable searches,” Wienner said.
In both cases, the women are seeking punitive damages as well as compensatory damages for the mental anguish and emotional distress suffered in an amount to be determined at trial, as well a reimbursement for their legal fees.