Heidy v. United States Customs Service – Government Misconduct – CCR Docket 1986-1987

The government’s assertion that Edward Haase’s experience at customs was an isolated incident of harassment, was the basic premise of the court’s decision in that case. However, customs has treated many other travelers in the same manner. CCR attorneys challenged this policy for a second time in a class action filed in April 1986 in a federal district court in Los Angeles . The plaintiffs are twelve individuals and five organizations, including the Latin American Studies Association and the National Central American Health Rights Network. The individual plaintiffs are United States citizens who, upon returning from Nicaragua, had their personal papers, research  materials, address books and other written mat­ter seized, read, photocopied, and in some instances sent to the FBI, by U.S. Customs Service agents. Plaintiffs charge that what the Haase court found to be an “isolated” event can no longer be so summarily dis­missed.

Pre-trial discovery has revealed a broad pattern of customs abuses, including the use of customs authority to gather intelli­gence about returnees from Nicaragua and the entry of that information in a nation­ wide customs computer. One plaintiff, a professor of political science who went to Nicaragua to observe the Nicaraguan elec­tions, was stopped upon his return in 1984 and assigned the following computer entry: “INTELLIGENCE, SUBJ IN POSSES­SION OF LITERATURE PERTAINING TO ELECTION IN NICARAGUA­ ALLEGED.”

Under the threat of a court order, customs has agreed to take several steps to remedy the situation, including the expungement of computer entries and the issuance of pol­icy directives forbidding customs officials from taking similar actions in the future.

David Cole, Michael Ratner, Anne E. Simon, with CCR cooperating attorney Barry Litt