The facts of this story sound like an absurd hypothetical from a law school criminal procedure exam. But there is nothing hypothetical about this story; a New Mexico man was subject to an unbelievably extensive search of his anal cavity and other internal organs after an officer observed that he seemed to be clenching his buttocks suspiciously tight, leading the officer to suspect he might be hiding drugs there.
The 4th Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures of their person and possessions by restricting law enforcement officers’ authority to infringe on these reasonable expectations of privacy unless they have probable cause (and in many cases, an accompanying warrant) to believe unlawful activity is being or about to be committed.
The incident began what appeared to be a legitimate traffic stop for failure to make a complete stop at a stop sign right outside of a Walmart. However, the encounter between driver, David Eckert, and the police officer quickly turned bizarre. The officer asked Eckert to step out of the car so that he could subject him to a pat down of his outer clothing. These frisks are done when an officer has a reason to suspect the individual may be armed, which Eckert claims was inappropriate. The officer handcuffed Eckert and took him to the police station where the officers applied for and received a warrant that, while vague, did include the authority to search Eckert’s anal cavity.
The story takes another twist. According to the complaint filed, several months earlier, plaintiff was stopped for a “cracked windshield” which resulted in a drug dog and full on search of his car as he stood and objected. No narcotics were found.
The January 2nd excursion to seek medical assistance to perform this body cavity search was not immediately successful. The first medical facility refused to do the procedure claiming it was an ethical violation. The second medical facility, Gila Regional Medical Center, agreed to perform the procedure which included:
- An X-ray of Eckert’s abdominal area, no narcotics were registered.
- A manual search by doctors of Eckert’s anal cavity, an induced defecation and the investigation of his stools
- A second manual search by doctors of Eckert’s anal cavity, an induced defecation, and the investigation of his stools
- A third manual search by doctors of Eckert’s anal cavity, an induced defecation, and the investigation of his stools
- No narcotics were found during any of these three repeat procedures
- A second x-ray of Eckert’s abdominal area was conducted, no narcotics were found.
- Eckert was then sedated and a colonoscopy was performed, which again, revealed no narcotics.
The Supreme Court has used the phrase “shocks the conscious” when determining what kind of bodily searches are appropriate and under what circumstances. For example, in 1952, the Court held that forced stomach pumping to retrieve evidence swallowed by a suspect “shocked the conscious”. It is hard to imagine that the phrase is anything but descriptive of this set of facts, but for now the lawsuit is left up to the trial court to determine.
The lawsuit filed alleges that through all of these embarrassing searches, the doctors “continually misplaced the privacy curtain” therefore exposing Eckert to the public hallway throughout the myriad of indecent procedures.
Eckert arrived with police at the medical center around 9 pm, and was not released until after 2 am the next morning.
The icing on the cake? Eckert has been billed for the medical procedures.
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