Heidy v. United States Customs Service – Government Misconduct – CCR Docket Fall 1990

The government’s assertion that Edward Haase’s experience at Customs was an isolated incident of harassment constituted the premise of the lower court’s decision in that case. Customs, however, has treated many other travelers in similar ways. 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 were twelve individuals and five organizations. including the Latin American Studies Association and the National Central American Health Rights Network.  The individual  plaintiffs were U.S. citizens who.upon returning from trips to Nicaragua, had their personal papers, research materials, address books, and other written materials seized, read, photocopied, and, in some inst ances, 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 into a nationwide Customs computer.

Under the threat of a court order, Customs agreed to the deletion of computer entries and the issuance of policy directives forbidding its officials from taking similar action in the future.

In March 1988 the district court issued a pennanent injunction against Customs, ordering it to expunge all records of seizures under 19 U.S.C. §1305, once a detennination 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 canno longer forward material detained under the statute to the  FBI. Binding other agencies to these regulations will close a potentially large loophole that could have been used for intelligence-gathering. The government filed a notice of appeal, but in June 1989 it voluntarily moved to withdraw it. In December 1989 the government agreed to pay $75,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs.

David Cole, Michael Ratner, with cooperating attorney Barry Litt