The verbal commands from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent on that day last year just grew louder and louder in Brownsville, Texas.
Laura Mireles, a U.S. citizen, only wanted to watch the agent search her purse, which was sitting in her car. He stopped her to inquire why she had bypassed X-ray machines for vehicles when she drove across the international bridge from Mexico to the United States.
That stop in a parking lot in the United States led to a search of her car and bag. As the search was underway, she stayed about 10 to 15 feet away from the agent, according to federal court papers. She only inched closer to observe the search in action.
The agent – identified in court documents only by his surname of Riano – ordered her to step back. But before she knew it, the law enforcement official, for unknown reasons, threw her to the ground, ripping her jeans at the knee.
Using his full weight and tall frame, he then leaned on her. She later felt metal handcuffs tighten around her wrists, according to court papers. She asked why this was happening, only to hear his command of silence several times and that he would hit her with an object. Her attorneys believe that object was a stun gun.
Mireles, 32, and the ACLU of Texas filed a lawsuit on Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, naming U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and “Agent Riano” as defendants. Her attorneys argue that her Fourth Amendment rights, which protect her from unreasonable search and seizure, as well as excessive force, and rights under Texas state law, which safeguard her from assault and false arrest, were violated in a case that has already stoked public outrage.
The lawsuit comes at a heightened time for security along the U.S.-Mexico border. The comprehensive immigration bill, as passed in the Senate earlier this year, calls for tens of billions of dollars to support more border agents and beefed-up security.
“This type of physical abuse of a law-abiding person by a CBP agent is totally unwarranted and, unfortunately, all too common,” Adriana Pinon, her attorney who works for the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement.
“Cases like Laura’s deteriorate our border communities and erode public trust, making us all less safe.”
In an email, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Richard Pauza explained that he cannot comment because the case is under pending litigation. Angela Dodge, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, said she was not aware of the case but that she would look into the matter.
Mireles probably thought that day – Nov. 5, 2012 – was going to be uneventful. But she lost more than she could have imagined.
The Brownsville resident, who stands a little over 5 feet, was working that day at Brady’s Duty Free, which is located on the U.S. side of the Veterans International Bridge at Los Tomates in the city.
One task she had to do that evening was lock the duty free store’s door. But her coworker, who lived on the Mexico side of the border, had the keys.
Around 8 p.m., according to the lawsuit, she drove her car across the border to fetch them.
As she returned to the United States, she used a rapid inspection lane for pre-approved, low-risk travelers and received permission from a U.S. border agent to return to the United States.
She also received approval to use a special return lane which let her bypass X-ray machines in an inspection area on the bridge, according to the lawsuit.
She used these lanes because she was eager to return to the duty free store, where her coworker was there alone. About 15 minutes later, Mireles arrived at the store and locked the door.
In the store’s parking lot, while she was in her car, flashing emergency lights from a patrol car emerged. Riano, wearing a blue uniform, was behind the wheel of the government vehicle.
He approached her and asked about bypassing the X-ray machines on her return to the United States. After hearing her explanation, he used his radio to confirm the information with a federal agent at the bridge, court papers say.
Riano informed her that he and another U.S. agent were going to search her car – to which she agreed. Her attorneys maintain that she did not threaten anyone’s safety or break any law while the search was occurring.
As she stepped closer to observe Riano going through her purse and asked about what he was doing, he gave commands for her to step aside.
But he gave no warning that he was going to use physical force against her, according to the lawsuit.
She only realized that fact when she was face down on the ground. The force caused a wound to her knee.
Confusion set in. So did crying and questions about why this was happening. She asked to be set free.
The handcuffs that Riano had placed on her were so tight that the metal cut into her skin, according to the lawsuit. She did not resist, her attorneys say.
Later, at a U.S. government office at the immigration bridge, she stayed in the patrol car and told other federal agents that she needed medical attention.
An ambulance soon arrived but neither the federal agents nor paramedics succeeded in freeing her from the handcuffs, court papers say. Firefighters were summoned to do the job.
The metal handcuffs dug so deeply into her skin that her wrists became raw and wounded, her attorneys told the court.
The U.S. agents later released her and she was taken by ambulance to a local hospital. Federal agents never cited her for violating the law.
The next day, she experienced unexpected bleeding and visited a gynecologist.
Tests were run and the doctor informed Mireles of news that no soon-to-be mother wants to hear – that she was no longer pregnant.
“The miscarriage of her pregnancy was a result of the previous day’s incident,” according to court papers.
She and her attorneys estimate that Riano weighs about 200 pounds. In comparison, Mireles only weighs about 100 pounds. She also has a malformation of her hands and legs.
She is asking for a trial by jury.
This article was originally published by Equal Voice News on Oct. 22, 2013 under the title "On the Border and in Cities, Skin Color Still Matters."
The headline of this post has been corrected to clarify that the lawsuit is against Customs and Border Protection rather than the Border Patrol.