Heidy v. United States Customs Service – Government Misconduct – CCR Docket 1987-1988

The government’s assertion that Edward Haase’s experience at Customs was an iso­lated incident of harassment, was the basic premise of the lower 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 12 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 materials seized, read, photocopied, and in some instances sent to the FBI, by U.S. Customs Service agents.

Pretrial 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, subject in possession of literature pertaining to election in Nicara­gua alleged!’

Under the threat of a court order, Cus­toms agreed to take steps to remedy the sit­uation, including the expungement of com­puter entries and the issuance of policy directives forbidding its officials from tak­ing similar action in the future. The FBI, however, has thus far refused to be bound. This FBI recalcitrance is the remaining issue in the case and will be presented to the district court for resolution.

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