Border patrol vehicle
Border patrol vehicle AFP / Paul Ratje

A federal judge in California has ruled that the U.S. government violated the rights of two U.S. citizens by detaining them for hours when they attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border to go to school. As a result, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel has awarded the family of the two children over $1.5 million.

Oscar Amparo Medina and his sister, Julia Isabel Amparo (who were 14 and nine years old at the time of the incident) were stopped at the Tijuana-San Ysidro border crossing in March 2019. The situation escalated when a border patrol officer claimed that the girl depicted in Julia's passport photo did not match the child in front of them due to a discrepancy involving a facial mark.

The children, both U.S. citizens, were taken to a secondary inspection area where Julia was interrogated by a border patrol officer named Willmy Lara. The Amparo Medina family claimed that Lara coerced Julia into falsely identifying herself as her cousin, Melany. The government argued that the children had fabricated the lie themselves, but the judge noted that there was no coherent explanation for the government's argument and criticized the lack of a witness or recording of the interrogation:

"Although reasonable suspicion may have existed initially to believe that Julia was making a false claim of citizenship by fraudulently using the passport card of another, the duration of her and Oscar's detention was unreasonable and in violation of the Fourth Amendment because officers repeatedly failed to take available steps to investigate their suspicions and failed to follow CBP's own policies and precautions regarding the treatment of detained minors."

The judge went on to state that it was not reasonable to detain Julia for 34 hours to determine her identity or to detain Oscar for about 14 hours to determine whether he was trafficking his sister when other means of investigation were available.

Oscar was subjected to intense interrogation and was told he would be arrested and charged with human and organ trafficking if he did not admit that his sister was actually his cousin. Under duress, he eventually signed a false statement, which was then used to extract a false confession from Julia.

Judge Curiel determined that the government had intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the children and, in consequence, awarded $1.1 million in damages to Julia, $175,000 to Oscar, and $250,000 to their mother, Thelma.

In an email obtained by Courthouse News Service Joseph McMullen, the family's attorney, said that "Judge Curiel's verdict is a powerful statement that CBP officers must follow the rules just like everyone else, especially when it comes to the treatment of children."

"The severity of the officers' conduct is exacerbated by the fact that they were in positions of power and authority over plaintiffs," Curiel concluded. "The court therefore concludes that the United States' conduct was extreme and outrageous. No reasonable person should be expected to endure the distress suffered by plaintiffs."

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