Withering rights: Will outrage over NM case turn back ongoing assault on civil liberties?
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By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE, N.M. – The story from New Mexico , outraged millions of Americans and led to a renewed debate about an assault on civil liberties in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
But civil libertarian has doubts about whether that outrage will instigate change.
“I’m fairly jaded about what police and prosecutors can get away with and the few rights we actually have left,” said Balko, a libertarian journalist who has covered the criminal justice system and has written a book, “,” released in July. “But even this (incident), I was sort of astonished when I read it.”
The aforementioned story involves , a 63-year-old man from Lordsburg accused of failing to make a complete stop while leaving a Walmart in Deming, N.M., in January. Eckert filed a lawsuit.
Police told Eckert to step out of his vehicle, the lawsuit says, but when he did police suspected he was clenching his buttocks. Police believed Eckert was carrying narcotics in his anal cavity and sought a search warrant.
In the meantime, the lawsuit says, police took Eckert to an emergency room in Deming to perform a cavity search.
A doctor refused, calling it “unethical.”
Undeterred, police drove Eckert to another county. At the Gila Regional Medical Center in Silver City, Eckert was forced to undergo X-rays, two digital rectal exams and three enemas. Police compelled him to defecate, in front of them and the doctors. Eckert was sedated and underwent a colonoscopy.
No drugs were found, but Eckert was charged $6,000 for the colonoscopy.
“This is like something out of a science fiction film, anal probing by government officials and public employees,” Eckert’s attorney, . Eckert is from the law enforcement and medical personnel involved.
The story has shocked New Mexicans . But for Balko it’s another in a long list of civil liberty violations, which he has documented in his book.
“There were cases in Texas where penetrating women’s vaginas with their hands looking for drugs after traffic stops; they weren’t even at drug raids,” Balko said. “Things like this have happened before.”
Within days of the Eckert case, two more people in New Mexico came forward with similar stories.
Timothy Young, 31, of Deming, he was subjected to a strip-search in a parking lot in Lordsburg because police believed he was carrying drugs. Young says he was taken to the Gila Regional Medical Center for an X-ray and digital exams. No drugs were found, he says, although he was charged $600 for hospital costs.
About the same time a New Mexico woman, whose identity has not been disclosed, at a U.S. border crossing facility in El Paso, Texas. She was asked to undress and spread her genitalia as female agents pressed their fingers into her vagina in search of drugs, according to allegations.
No drugs were found, her lawyer says.
“I think it’s good that people are so angry about it,” Balko told in a telephone interview. “Whether that leads to any meaningful reform, I don’t know.”
Court cases — including decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court — have, in the name of fighting drugs, under the Fourth Amendment, Balko said. “The amendment has been turned on its head.”
In Eckert’s case, the police officers managed to persuade the deputy district attorney and a local judge .
“Once that was done, that was basically it,” Balko said.
What can be done?
“States can pass laws making offices civilly liable,” Balko said. “Under state law, maybe you can give people an avenue to enforce their rights that way. But on the federal level, it’s pretty difficult.”
Balko said the shocking nature of the allegations in New Mexico will probably lead to civil penalties against the local authorities.
“In this case, I think people will probably be compensated just because there’s been so much public outrage. I think the (Hidalgo County) Sheriff’s Office will have to capitulate in some way. At some point there’s going to be political pressure on them to change the policy.”
on the Eckert case, beyond saying, “We follow the law in every aspect and we follow policies and protocols that we have in place.”
Balko isn’t sure what effect the incidents in New Mexico will have on Americans’ ongoing fight to retain their civil liberties.
“We’ve seen a one-way ratchet effect since the late 1960s on these issues. If I were a betting man I’d say it’s only going to get worse. But I do see some reasons for optimism, the main one being that people are finally saying, enough is enough.”
Contact Rob Nikolewski at and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski