LAUREL, Md. — An Upper Marlboro man has filed a federal lawsuit claiming his constitutional rights were violated when he was detained under the suspicion of smuggling drugs by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at Dulles International Airport two years ago.
But it turns out 58-year-old Ikechukwu “Ike” Owunna wasn’t smuggling anything back into the country when he returned from his father’s memorial service in his native Nigeria.
According to a report released by The Washington Post and The Center for Public Integrity, CBP officers suspected Owunna of being a drug mule because he didn’t appear to have enough clothing packed for a two-week trip.
Owunna “quite properly declared that he had some fruit with him,” said George Calhoun, one of the attorneys at Ifrah PLLC who is working on Owunna’s case.
“A customs official then took him back to secondary where they cut up his fruit, cut up his luggage, conducted a pat down, went through all of his personal belongings,” Calhoun said.
“It’s probably worth noting one of the reasons they decided he might be an internal drug smuggler is because he had malaria medication with him,” he said. An “internal” drug smuggler is someone who may have swallowed small balloons or condoms filled with drugs in order to avoid detection.
“So on one hand, you’ve got the government telling Americans, hey if you go here, take malaria medication — and we’ve got the Customs and Border Patrol saying if you take malaria medication, you might be a drug smuggler.”
The Post and CPI reference emails and court affidavits that state the same type of malaria medication can be used to slow the heart rate, and had been recently discovered on a drug carrier.
According to the complaint, the search revealed no evidence that Owunna carried illegal drugs, and what he packed matched his plans for travel and his means.
“Mr. Owunna did not possess any stomach medication, laxatives, or other medications or incidentals commonly used and possessed by internal narcotics smugglers,” the complaint said.
It also alleges Owunna’s hands and feet were bound, that he was carried through public portions of the airport and taken to Reston Hospital Center, where he underwent invasive exams and was given X-rays against his will.
Calhoun said Owunna’s constitutional protection against illegal searches was violated, and the lawsuit alleges racial profiling and unlawful imprisonment.
The complaint states Owunna was pressured to sign a form giving his consent to medical treatment, and officers reportedly told Owunna that “doing so was the only way he would be released from custody.”
Owunna was taken back to Dulles after the X-ray showed he wasn’t hiding drugs in his body, which, the lawsuit said, he maintained all along. If the Customs and Border Patrol wanted to investigate Owunna in more detail, they should have gotten a warrant, his lawyer said.
“That’s what our law, our Fourth Amendment to the Constitution requires the government to do when it wants to conduct an invasive search,” Calhoun said. “It’s not difficult. The government does this every single day, and if they really thought he was a drug smuggler based on the amount of luggage he had or the fact that he had malaria medication like the government said he should have, they should have taken it to a judge for a warrant. It’s not hard.”
According to the The Post/CPI report, Reston Hospital Center would not comment, but the hospital denied the claims in the complaint. CBP officers also deny binding Owunna so he couldn’t walk on his own, pressuring him to consent to medical treatment, and that Owunna reversed his consent to treatment. Customs and Border Protection wants the lawsuit dismissed. A hearing on their motion to dismiss will be held on Jan 4.