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Drug search involving anal probe results in $1.6-million settlement

Crime, Law and JusticeLaws and LegislationJustice System

ALBUQUERQUE — Police were positive David Eckert had some drugs this time.

On Jan. 2, 2013, officers in Deming, N.M., handcuffed Eckert, 63, in a Wal-Mart parking lot after a routine traffic stop turned into an attempted narcotics bust.

Police said their drug dog, Leo, had sniffed something on the driver's seat of Eckert's truck. According to a lawsuit Eckert later filed, the officers said Eckert, who had a history of drug arrests, also had a history of hiding meth in his anal cavity.

Police took Eckert to a hospital. His federal civil rights lawsuit — which reached a partial conclusion this week — detailed what happened next.

First Eckert got an X-ray, which was inconclusive for drugs, according to his lawsuit. Then a doctor examined Eckert's anus with his finger, as did a second doctor. Neither found drugs.

Then the doctors gave a protesting Eckert an enema, he alleged, forcing him to have a bowel movement in front of medical staff. There were no drugs in his stool.

Doctors purportedly gave him two more enemas and got the same result.

They took another X-ray, which was negative this time. Then came the colonoscopy, which involves inserting a camera into the anus. It found nothing.

No drugs were found in Eckert's body.

Weeks later, he received a hospital bill for $4,539.

He sued the city of Deming, along with Hidalgo County and the hospital, Gila Regional Medical Center in Grant County.

In his complaint, Eckert said he was denied the opportunity to call his attorney; that the search warrant had expired by the time the doctors were examining him; that the procedures were carried out in a different county where the warrant wasn't valid; and that police mocked him during the procedures and intentionally pulled back his privacy curtain while he was exposed.

City and county officials denied some of the allegations in preliminary court filings. But last month, after a six-hour negotiating session, they settled. Eckert will get $1.6 million in damages.

On Tuesday, city and county attorneys asked a court to dismiss the suit. Eckert's attorney called the agreement a “common-sense, not-complicated application of the law on personal searches.”

The lawsuit continues against an assistant district attorney as well as hospital officials.

Joseph Kennedy, Eckert's Albuquerque-based lawyer, said Thursday that even if his client had a history of concealing drugs inside his body, authorities went too far.

“Look, even if you’re a police officer, you have to balance what you’re looking for, the importance of your investigation, with what you’re doing to a person,” he said. “You don’t do bad things to people, no matter who they are. Because then you’re in a debate about torture.”

Kennedy added of Eckert, “He’s glad the court recognized the wrong and recognized his dignity and humanity.”

Santa Fe attorney Tony F. Ortiz, who represents the city of Deming, said the settlement involved a confidentiality provision that limited him from public comment about the case. Deming is about 240 miles south of Albuquerque. 

Eckert said that he was “grateful to live in the United States” and that the settlement gave him some justice.

“I truly hope that no one will be treated like this ever again,” Eckert said in a statement. “I felt very helpless and alone on that night. The comments I have read on news stories from people around the world have made me feel much better and not so alone.

“My family and I hope that people understand that I don’t want my face to be linked with jokes related to anal probing. For this reason I asked my attorneys to issue this statement in the hopes that the media will respect my privacy and the privacy of my family.”

Kennedy said the rest of Eckert's lawsuit may be switched to state court.

The attorney has also sued the Hildago County Sheriff's Office on behalf of Timothy Young over what he says was a similar incident in October 2012.

Young's case involves the same drug dog, Leo. According to that lawsuit, sheriff's deputies took him to a hospital where he was X-rayed and anally probed, then was billed for the medical procedures after no drugs were found.

In court documents filed this week, the sheriff's office denied some of Young's claims and said the warrant to search him was properly issued.

matt.pearce@latimes.com

john.glionna@latimes.com

Pearce reported from Los Angeles and Glionna from Albuquerque.

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