Heidy v. United States Customs Service – Government Misconduct – CCR Docket Fall 1988-1989

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. Cus­toms, however, has treated many other travel­ers in the same manner. CCR 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 U.S. 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 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 nationwide 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 en­ try: “Intelligence, subj 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.

On March 2, 1988, the district court issued a permanent injunction against Customs, order­ing it to expunge all records of seizures under 19 U.S.C. §1305, once a determination is made that the materials do not violate the statute. It further enjoined Customs from providing any materials to other agencies for review unless the other agency agrees to be bound by Cus­toms policy restrictions. This means that un­less the FBI agrees to follow Customs policy, Customs can no longer forward material de­tained under §1305 to that agency, and closes a large loophole that could have been used for intelligence-gathering. The government has appealed.

David Cole, Michael Ratner, with CCR cooperating attorney Barry Litt