A pair of videos posted online show police probing the genitals and anal regions of three women they claim to suspect of possessing marijuana. In one video, a woman is seen bent over and grimacing as an off camera police officer conducts the search. Shortly before this search, a male officer explains to the woman that he is calling a female officer over “because I ain’t about to get up close and personal with your woman areas.”
The videos depict two vehicle stops, one for speeding and another for littering. In both videos, a male officer asks the women if they have any marijuana in the vehicle, suggesting that the purpose of their search is to find evidence of this drug. At one point, immediately before conducting her search of a woman’s genitals, a female officer warns the woman that if she “hid something in there, we’re going to find it.”
These searches almost certainly violate the Constitution. Although police do have broad latitude to search a vehicle when they have probable cause to believe that they will uncover contraband within, it is quite a stretch to extend these precedents to this most intimate of searches. As the Supreme Court explained in a 2009 decision regarding a student who was strip searched by school administrators, “both subjective and reasonable societal expectations of personal privacy support the treatment of such a search as categorically distinct, requiring distinct elements of justification on the part of school authorities for going beyond a search of outer clothing and belongings.”
Admittedly, that decision rested in part upon factors specific to that case, such as the youth of the person subject to the search. Nevertheless, the Court placed a great deal of weight on the fact that authorities had no “reason to suppose that [the student] was carrying pills in her underwear.” In other words, if officials want to conduct an unusually intrusive search into a suspect’s most private areas, this strip search case suggests that they must have particular reason to believe that contraband will be found in those private areas. It is doubtful that Texas police had any reason to specifically believe that the three women searched in these videos were carrying marijuana in their vaginas or their rectums.
The New York Daily News identifies one of the officers involved in these incidents as Trooper Jennie Bui, and reports that she was fired on June 29. Another officer, Trooper Kelley Helleson was also fired and charged with two counts of sexual assault. Two other officers are suspended.
(HT: Syreeta McFadden)