The Outrage of Body-Cavity Searches

Americans routinely turn away from systematic violations of civil rights when they are perpetrated in the guise of fighting the war on drugs.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

On an autumn afternoon in 2014, Elijah Pontoon was riding in the passenger seat of a Honda Accord driven by a female companion, Lakeya Hicks, when they were stopped by an Aiken, South Carolina, police officer on a busy thoroughfare near downtown.

What happened next is in dispute.

A lawsuit filed in federal court and dashcam video footage of the traffic stop suggest it was an egregious civil-rights violation of black motorists, conducted on the pretense of a drug search. The city of Aiken claims that its cops acted lawfully and unobjectionably.

Video footage of the stop is the easiest place to begin.

In the footage above, Officer Chris Medlin of the Aiken Department of Public Safety tells the motorists that he stopped them because of the paper tags on their newly purchased car. But there’s no law against having temporary tags in the state. The passenger was asked for his identification, although he was under no obligation to provide it, regardless of whether the tags were expired. At that point, the tags checked out, and the traffic stop ought to have been over.

Instead, Medlin called for a drug dog. “Because of your history, I’ve got a dog coming in here,” the police officer declared, referencing the passenger’s decade-old narcotics conviction. “Gonna walk a dog around the car.”

Four police officers conducted a thorough search. When they came up empty-handed, the stop still didn’t end. Radley Balko analyzes the next part of the video at the Washington Post:

After the search of the car comes up empty, Medlin tells the female officer to “search her real good,” referring to Hicks. The personal search of Hicks is conducted off camera, but according to the complaint filed by Phillips, it allegedly involved exposing Hicks’s breasts on the side of the road in a populated area. The complaint also alleges that this was all done in direct view of the three male officers. That search, too, produced no contraband.

The officers then turn their attention to Pontoon. Medlin asks Pontoon to get out of the car. He cuffs him and begins to pat him down… he tells Pontoon: “You’ve got something here right between your legs. There’s something hard right there between your legs.” Medlin says that he’s going to “put some gloves on.”

The anal probe happens out of direct view of the camera, but the audio leaves little doubt about what’s happening. Pontoon at one point says that one of the officers is grabbing his hemorrhoids. Medlin appears to reply, “I’ve had hemorrhoids, and they ain’t that hard.”

...the audio actually suggests that two officers may have inserted fingers into Pontoon’s rectum, as one asks, “What are you talking about, right here?”

The other replies, “Right straight up in there.”

Pontoon then again tells the officers that they’re pushing on a hemorrhoid. One officer responds, “If that’s a hemorrhoid, that’s a hemorrhoid, all right? But that don’t feel like no hemorrhoid to me.” The officers apparently continue to search Pontoon’s rectum for another three minutes. They found no contraband. At 12:50:25, Medlin tells Pontoon to turn around and explains that he suspects him because he recognized him from when he worked narcotics. “Now I know you from before, from when I worked dope. I seen you. That’s why I put a dog on the car.”

That was Medlin’s “reasonable suspicion” to call for a drug dog — he thought he recognized Pontoon from a drug case. Medlin could well have been correct about recognizing Pontoon. He has a lengthy criminal history that includes drug charges, although his record appears to be clean since 2006, save for one arrest for “failure to comply.” Of course, even if Medlin did recognize Pontoon, that in itself isn’t cause to even stop him, much less search his car, or to subject him to a roadside cavity search.

With no contraband and no traffic violation to justify the stop in the first place, Medlin concluded the stop by giving Hicks a “courtesy warning,” although according to the complaint, there’s no indication of what the warning was actually for.

Summing up, the video appears to show an illegal stop followed by a series of illegal searches, culminating in an intrusive cavity search, all with no evidence of any criminal behavior—after all that, no drugs were found.

How can the city of Aiken defend that behavior?

In the city’s telling, the video gives a misleading impression of events. “The traffic stop was a legal stop conducted as part of an ongoing narcotics investigation based on information received from a documented, reliable informant,” city officials declared in a statement. A local newspaper adds that “the statement also denies that officers conducted a cavity search or exposed anyone’s ‘private body parts’ to public view.”

This strikes me as a highly suspicious excuse. Even if it were true, it’s a claim that all a cop needs is one compliant informant to serve up a tip to justify any illegal stop.

But let’s say that there was a legitimate tip. In the city’s telling, an informant, likely a criminal, told police, as part of an ongoing investigation, that this particular car, or one of the people in it, was carrying drugs. A single cop pulled them over, lying about the reason for the stop in order to hide the existence of the informant. A drug dog was summoned, and a thorough search of the car and pat downs of both passengers turned up neither drugs nor paraphernalia nor lots of cash.

At that point, the cops could’ve concluded that their informant was lying or mistaken. Instead, they decided that the best course of action was to put on gloves and probe a man’s anus closely enough that an argument ensued about hemorrhoids. Now, people do hide drugs in their bodily cavities. In theory, anyone at anytime could have a balloon full of heroin tucked into their most intimate parts.

Must the public accept cops probing individuals to check just in case?

Even in Aiken’s narrative, the behavior of the cops strikes me as ludicrous as a matter of law and common sense. With regard to the Fourth Amendment, Balko explains:

The Supreme Court has laid out a series of balancing tests to evaluate the legitimacy of these sorts of searches. The factors to consider are the scope of the intrusion, the manner in which the search is conducted, the justification for the search and the place where the search is conducted. The search of Pontoon seems extreme by all four measurements. The scope of the intrusion couldn’t be much more severe. It appears that two officers stuck fingers into his rectum. The manner? Well, it was done by two cops, not doctors. And it was done as Pontoon lay on the street, not in an examination room. The justification?

Officer Medlin might have remembered Pontoon’s face from doing drug cases years ago. The place? On the side of the road, in public, near downtown Aiken.

The cops appear to be in clear violation of the law.

Stepping back, there's the question of what the law ought to be. And it seems to me that there’s a choice before Americans. Do they want to be the sort of society where armed agents of the state occasionally probe the rectums or vaginas of innocents in search of drugs, or the sort of society where actual drug dealers can, with forethought, occasionally conceal a tiny amount of illegal narcotics from police officers?

The right choice in a civilized society seems clear to me.

Yet it is not the choice that Americans have made. I am constantly astonished that a nation of people who are too libertarian for national ID cards or strict gun control permit a status quo in which agents of the state routinely penetrate the most private of parts.

And it happens all the time!

The logical end of the state’s position? If I described it, you wouldn’t believe me, so I’ll conclude with some other cases that illustrate what citizens of this country allow to happen.

David Eckert was pulled over for rolling a stop sign. A police K-9 that wasn’t certified to do drug searches alerted to the presence of marijuana, but the cops couldn’t find any, so they went to a judge, who granted a body-cavity search warrant. The cops wanted the search carried out by medical professionals, but they had to go to two hospitals before they found doctors who were willing to cooperate.

Tim Lynch has the rest of the story.

“First, the doctors took an x-ray of Eckert’s abdomen, which showed no hidden drugs,” he explained. “Next, they forcibly probed Eckert’s anus with their fingers, which again uncovered no drugs. Undeterred, the doctors inserted an enema and forced Eckert to defecate in front of the officers: again, no drugs. The enema search was repeated twice, and still no drugs were found. Another x-ray was taken: no drugs. To cap off Eckert’s nightmare ordeal, the officers had the doctors sedate him and perform a colonoscopy, probing his anus, colon, rectum, and large intestines. No drugs found.  All of this was done against Eckert’s protest, in a county not covered by the search warrant, with part of the search done after the warrant had expired.”

That was a response to suspicion of possessing a tiny amount of marijuana!

My blood would boil at even a single case like that, especially if the police officers involved kept their jobs. What I can’t fathom is why Americans tolerate this when it happens so frequently that multiple examples have now made their way onto YouTube.

Here’s one:

Here’s another:

Here's a news story about a cavity search scandal in Atlanta:
Here's another example from Chicago:

The ubiquity of cavity searches allows sadistic cops to get away, for awhile, with behavior like this:

Four Milwaukee police officers were charged Tuesday with felonies related to illegal rectal searches of suspects on the street and in police district stations over the past two years. In one case, an officer held a gun to a man's head as two others held his arms and a third put him in a choke hold while jamming a hand into his anus, purportedly searching for evidence, according to the criminal complaint. Another man bled from his rectum for several days after his encounter with police, the complaint says.

The complaint lays out in graphic detail how the primary suspect, Officer Michael Vagnini, conducted searches of men's anal and scrotal areas, often inserting his fingers into their rectums. Vagnini acknowledged performing one of the searches. At least one suspect said Vagnini planted drugs on him.

There are many more examples.

And for what? Every year, authorities seize literal tons of illegal narcotics. Even that doesn’t make a dent in the drug supply. And Americans are expected to accept that the War on Drugs is going to be won, lost, or even significantly affected by whatever petty amounts of crack or heroin or marijuana can be concealed within a rectum or vagina?

U.S. drug policy is a daily parade of insanity.

And nearly every American lives reasonably close to scheduled meetings of city officials who are empowered to order their local police forces to eschew cavity searches.

It’s time to end the violations.