INDIANAPOLIS — An Indiana University faculty member has sued two U.S. customs agents for detaining her after the government eavesdropped on emails she exchanged with a Greek friend, her attorney said Thursday.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday alleging the customs agents violated Christine Von Der Haar's constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
"This case raises troubling issues about the power of the government to detain and question citizens," said Ken Falk, the ACLU of Indiana legal director who represents Von Der Haar.
The lawsuit alleges Von Der Haar, a senior lecturer in the sociology department at Indiana University in Bloomington, was confined in a guarded room at Indianapolis International Airport for more than 20 minutes on June 8, 2012, while she was questioned about her relationship with her friend.
The lawsuit alleges the questioning was based on surreptitious monitoring of communications between Von Der Haar and her friend, Dimitris Papatheodoropoulus, whom the woman met as a teenager and became reacquainted with 40 years later via the Internet. The two "communicated frequently through emails. Some of these emails were flirtatious and romantic in nature," the lawsuit said.
When Papatheodoropoulus traveled to the U.S. in 2012 for business and to visit with Von Der Haar, he shipped separately a computer server whose hard drive he had removed, the complaint said. When the two went to pick up the server at the airport, a customs agent asked them if they were planning to marry before Papatheodoropoulus was taken behind closed doors and questioned for about five hours.
Von Der Haar also was taken into an office and questioned about the emails the two had exchanged and whether they were having sexual relations, the complaint said. Since the server's email had been removed before it was shipped, someone has "surreptitiously monitored the communications" between the two and reported them to the customs agents, the complaint alleged.
Von Der Haar felt she had no choice but to answer questions from the agents, whom she believed to be armed, and did not believe she could leave until they released her, the lawsuit said.
"The detention of Dr. Von Der Haar was without cause or justification," the complaint said, and "caused her anxiety, concern, distress and other damages."
The lawsuit names the two customs agents as defendants and seeks damages.
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the agency had no immediate comment on the case.