Chinese tourist awarded US$461,000 after false arrest and beating by US border guards
Border agents mistakenly thought Zhao Yan was part of a drug gang in the 2004 incident
A federal judge has ruled in favour of a Chinese businesswoman who sued the US government after being injured during a 2004 confrontation with American border agents at Niagara Falls.
Following a non-jury trial in Rochester, New York, Judge Elizabeth Wolford awarded Zhao Yan US$461,000 for false arrest, medical expenses, pain and suffering and lost earnings. Her 2006 civil rights lawsuit sought US$10 million in damages.
Wolford’s ruling Monday found the government liable for US Customs and Border Protection Officer Robert Rhodes “assault and battery and false arrest” of Zhao at the Rainbow Bridge US-Canada border crossing in Niagara Falls.
The judge found she was entitled to recover US$385,000 for past and future pain and suffering, US$64,000 in past medical expenses, US$1,800 in lost earnings and US$10,000 for false arrest. She was never charged with anything.
The case provoked anger in China after pictures of Zhao, her face swollen from pepper spray and her eyes and forehead bruised, were widely published.
Rhodes initially was fired and criminally charged with violating Zhao’s civil rights. He was acquitted at a 2005 trial and eventually reinstated to his job. A lawyer for Rhodes did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
A Tianjin business owner and piano teacher, Zhao had been in the United States on a business visa to study the market for wood in Pennsylvania, court documents show. She was sightseeing as a tourist at Niagara Falls when the confrontation occurred.
In charging Rhodes, government prosecutors claimed he used excessive force when he used pepper spray on Zhao, put his knee on her back and drove her head into the pavement. But during the 2015 civil trial, US authorities said Zhao’s injuries were her own fault because she ran from the officer and then kicked, punched and scratched him before two other officers arrived and helped restrain her on the ground.
The then 38-year-old Zhao and two other women had run from the inspection station, instead of obeying officers’ orders to come inside after they detained a drug suspect they thought may have been with the women. Zhao said she ran because the officers frightened her.
In her lawsuit and accompanying court documents, she said the confrontation humiliated her and the mental and physical trauma she suffered left her unable to work and afraid of uniformed police.
“This incident harmed almost all aspects of my life,” she said in a court filing.
Zhao’s lawyers and the US Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.