Recently, several reels of dash camera footage have surfaced on public video hosting sites revealing Texas police officers taking extreme measures in searching women reportedly suspected of marijuana possession.
Our D.C. criminal defense attorneys understand that in both instances, the police officers stopped the women for relatively minor offenses - one for littering and the other for speeding. It does not appear, at least based on court records and the videos, that there was any probable cause to suspect these women were in possession of marijuana in the first place.
And yet, the officers in both cases subjected the women to full cavity searches in roadside stops. The searches, performed by gloved, female troopers, reportedly happened in broad daylight in full view of passing vehicles. The videos are graphic and show the officers probing inside the women's genitalia, all the while threatening that they will find the drugs.
Drugs were not found in either incident.
The women have since filed civil lawsuits in federal court, alleging these actions are unconstitutional. Their cases appear quite solid.
First of all, even if the officers had reason to suspect the women were in possession of marijuana, such searches are incredibly invasive and inappropriate - not to mention likely Fourth Amendment violations against unreasonable searches. While officers tend to be given a wide latitude in searching a person's vehicle, personal searches of this nature cross the line. Even if the officers had found something, it's likely that such evidence would have been suppressed in court on the basis that these searches are illegal.
Similar allegations out of Milwaukee a few years ago resulted in the discipline of eight police officers there. Those officers were accused of conducting genital searches on suspects when they had no legal authority to do so.
Another case out of Florida recently involves a woman who was ordered by a male trooper to lift her shirt and bra up over her breasts - exposing herself to passing traffic - in order to ensure she wasn't hiding drugs in her bra. She had been stopped for a non-functioning headlight. No drugs were found.
In the Texas cases, the women were not asked for consent. Rather, they were ordered to submit.
One of those officers involved has since been charged with sexual assault and fired from her position.
There are reports that such actions are widespread in Texas. We haven't heard of anything similar taking place here in D.C., but we do know that when it comes to roadside searches, many people are unaware of their basic rights.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is very clear: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause supported by oath or affirmation and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized."
The idea is to protect your privacy and freedom from arbitrary invasions. The courts have interpreted this in different ways with regard to traffic stops.
Basically, an officer can ask you at any point to search anything. By the same token, you have the right to say no. That is true whether we're talking about your vehicle, the property inside your vehicle or your own person. If the officer does not have probable cause, that is where it should end.
If you refuse a personal search, the only reason an officer would be allowed to pat you down without probable cause would be to ensure his or her own safety. For example, if there was suspicion that you were armed with a concealed weapon.
The bottom line is that anytime a roadside search is conducted on your person or property, you should question it. Even if officers do find something in those searches for which to arrest you, if the search wasn't proper, that evidence should be suppressed and it's likely the case against you would be tossed.