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A New Mexico woman claims she suffered for weeks after a Bernalillo County corrections officer strip-searched her and sprayed mace in her vagina.
“It’s tantamount to torture,” Peter Simonson, the Executive Director of ACLU of New Mexico said in an interview with 4 On Your Side.
The ACLU, on behalf of Marlene Tapia, filed a federal lawsuit this week two years after the alleged ordeal occurred -- two years after Tapia first contacted the organization.
Simonson said civil rights cases are complicated to build, but that his staff filed the case within the two-year statute of limitations.
According to court records, police arrested Tapia for a probation violation tied to a previous drug case. While at the Metropolitan Detention Center, Tapia said two officers strip searched her and asked her to bend over at the waist. That’s when they noticed a plastic baggie protruding from Tapia’s vagina.
Instead of taking Tapia to a doctor to have the baggie removed, she said one of the officers – Blanca Zapater – sprayed a chemical agent directly on her genitals twice.
Simonson said the chemical agent was mace.
Tapia said she suffered “severe pain that lasted for several weeks including burning, swollen genitals and painful urination,” according to the court records.
Simonson said ACLU of New Mexico has never litigated a case like this before and that it stands out.
“It’s just the maliciousness, the wanton disregard, wanton maliciousness that the corrections officer demonstrated,” he said. “This is the kind of chemical that is intended to be sprayed on other parts of the body, to cause pain, but to spray it on the very most sensitive part of a person’s body only doubles the pain.”
Simonson believes that the officer not only violated basic Constitutional rights, but jail policy as well.
The policy states that “Chemical agents are only used when there is a threat to the safety of staff or inmates.”
Simonson said Tapia was cooperative with officers.
“Our client did not resist the corrections officers, she didn’t give them fight,” he said.
Staff at the Metropolitan Detention Center declined to comment on the case, but confirmed that the Zapater is still on staff after she was hired in November 2008.
According to the lawsuit, Zapater was disciplined for the situation involving Tapia.
Simonson said the ACLU is not seeking compensation on the case because the organization never does. Instead, he said his staff wants to make sure our country’s Constitutional freedoms and protections apply to everybody – including the people accused of a crime.
“We do it so we can ensure that these sorts of things don’t happen to another person,” he said.