NewsTeam 10 Investigates


Claim: Government officials failing to provide necessary medical care

Posted at 2:12 PM, Nov 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-27 21:27:07-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — A California woman is claiming officials with the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) treated her like an animal.

Amanda Sams said Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials failed to provide the medical care required to treat her serious medical needs while she was in their custody.

In a lawsuit filed against the government, Sams and her civil attorneys claim, "This practice of DHS agents forcing arrestees and pretrial detainees to detox and withdraw from high amounts of alcohol and/or opiates in holding cells near the border, has happened with alarming frequency. Indeed, Ms. Sams is believed to be one of dozens of other individuals forced to endure these conditions in recent months."

Sams Arrest and Detention

Sams was arrested in January for charges related to bringing an undocumented immigrant in the United States illegally.

According to court documents filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office, Customs and Border Protection officers found a person in a hidden compartment in the vehicle Sams was driving.

Court records show after Sams was arrested, she told officers that she is an alcoholic and uses drugs.

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According to her lawsuit, after spending the night in a holding cell at the border, Sams was transported to the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in downtown San Diego. The lawsuit says officials at MCC rejected her due to her unstable medical condition.

Her lawsuit alleges, "Rather than taking Ms. Sams to a hospital, as recommended by MCC officials and as (presumably) required by DHS policies and procedures, the CBP Defendants returned Ms. Sams to a DHS holding facility at or near the San Ysidro Port of Entry."

Team 10 obtained four days of surveillance video from Sams' cell, an experience she described as one of the worst times of her life.

"When I first walked in, you could smell urine, and you could hear kids crying," Sams said. "You could hear people screaming. There was garbage in the corner."

The video obtained by Team 10 shows her eating, sleeping, pacing, hyperventilating and vomiting.

"No human being should be treated like that," Sams said. "Like they are nothing. Like they are a nobody."

Sams told 10News she was given only a solar blanket and a thin mat to sleep on.

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She said she began to experience symptoms of withdrawal while in the cell.

"I was sick to my stomach," Sams recalled. "I had cold chills, then I'd get hot. I'd get cold. I'd have these sweats."

Team 10 Investigator Adam Racusin asked Sams if she remembered the medical staff at the facility ever checking her vital signs.

"Nothing," Sams said.

According to court documents: "For five days, she languished in a holding cell at the port of entry while enduring severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and detox without access to medical care. She was forced to sleep on the concrete floor of a cell for four nights with only a solar blanket to keep her warm from the cold. She was not allowed to change her clothing and denied access to basic hygiene, including a shower, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, a water cup, or feminine hygiene products. She was never allowed to make a call or speak with legal counsel."

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Sams attorney Trenton Lamere said the government breached its duty of care when they failed to provide minimally necessary services.

"Really minimum levels of care here that we would expect from a civilized society," Lamere said.

According to Sams' lawsuit, "California law imposes a duty of care on law enforcement and custodial officers to protect the health and safety of pretrial detainees, which includes a duty to ensure pretrial detainees' serious medical risks and needs are properly evaluated and treated. Despite the objectively serious nature of the medical risks and needs Plaintiff was facing, and the CBP Defendants' subjective awareness of the same, the CBP Defendants breached their duty to protect Plaintiff's health and safety, by failing to provide the medical care required to evaluate and treat Plaintiffs' serious medical risks and needs while Plaintiff was in the custody, and under the supervision, of the government."

Sams said she saw a judge five days after she was arrested.

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"When I asked for help, I really needed somebody's help," she said. "I feel that no one should have to feel that alone or go through something like that alone ever in their life."

Sams' criminal attorney tried to get the case against her thrown out based on what she called outrageous conduct by the government.

The judge in her criminal case did not agree.

Sams' trial is scheduled for April 2020.

Government Response

A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection said the agency can't comment on pending litigation.

The U.S. Attorney's Office also didn’t comment on Sams' criminal case.

However, in court documents, the government claims Sams indicated to her interrogators that she was not intoxicated and that she was not using drugs.

Court documents say "The San Ysidro Port of Entry is not a hospital with doctors like API (Alvarado Parkway Institute). However, physicians assistants work at the San Ysidro Port of Entry for approximately 16-20 hours a day. The physician's assistants can render medical aid to detainees as necessary. There are also CBP Officers trained as Emergency Medical Responders and Emergency Medical Technicians who are able to provide medical attention while on duty at the port of entry."

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The government stated that records from Sams' detention at the San Ysidro Port of Entry show that officers conducted dozens of welfare checks, and at no point did CBP ever make the determination that she was in a state of medical emergency.

They also claimed Sams indicated to a Customs and Border Protection Supervisory Officer that she wanted to go to Court and did not need medical attention.

Team 10 investigator Adam Racusin asked Sams why at certain points she told officers she was not detoxing.

"So they'd take me out of there," she explained. "They'd take me to jail take me to another facility. I just wanted help."

Other people going through withdrawal

Sams is not the only one making allegations of mistreatment in a border holding cell.

Earlier this month 10News spoke to Jesus Centeno-Paredes from behind the walls of a detention facility just outside of San Diego.

Centeno said he was arrested at the border then held for nearly three days in a potentially dangerous medical state.

According to court documents, "Mr. Centeno was kept in a small cell where the lights were on the entire time. Mr. Centeno was not given a change of clothes during the nearly three days while he was at the Port of Entry. The cell where Mr. Centeno was held did not have a bed, and Mr. Centeno was given a thin foil blanket and a torn yoga mat to lie on. There was no soap, no toothbrush, and no hygiene products."

Documents obtained by Team 10 allege others have gone through detox at the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry.

Team 10 obtained what's known as the "No Body Active List" or "Federal Defender No Body Report."

A No Body Active List from March of this year shows two additional people involuntarily detoxing from heroin were kept at the San Ysidro Port. Team 10 investigator Adam Racusin has also seen other No Body Active Lists from different dates showing other people marked as detoxing at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

Team 10 tried to get all No Body Active Lists from the start of this year, but so far, the U.S. Attorney's Office has not turned them over and said they aren't public documents.