Mark Tyrell Fowlkes had a bad day.
For you or me, that means realizing that there's no credit left on our Starbucks card or our co-workers being annoying or getting a flat tire. For Fowlkes, it meant the Long Beach Police Department forcibly pulling something out of his ass.
LBPD, assisted by the DEA, were wiretapping and surveilling Fowlkes to see if he was dealing drugs. He was. LBPD arrested him once, caught him with drugs and a gun, and released him, probably to see where he'd lead them. A week later, they ran a pretextual traffic stop on him, arrested him, and took him to jail. There they strip-searched him:
Five officers observed the strip search, including Officer Jeffrey Harris and Sergeant Michael Gibbs, who brought along his taser, gloves and “assistance” in the form of additional officers because he thought Fowlkes might have drugs.
Officers believed that Fowlkes was not being cooperative displaying his anus and thought he was trying to push something in there. One Sergeant testified that he believed Fowlkes was trying to force an object further into his anus in order to destroy evidence. That's not how anuses work. That's not how any of this works. But to prevent Fowlkes from further hiding or destroying something in his anus, Sargeant Michael Gibbs “delivered a drive stun tase to the center portion of the defendant’s back” and the officers handcuffed him. Officers claim they could see a plastic bag protruding from Fowlkes. With Fowlkes cuffed, tased, and under the control of five officers, the officers decided that immediate action was needed to protect evidence. Sargeeant Michael Gibbs gloved up and pulled the object out of Fowlkes' rectum without seeking a warrant, without medical training or medical personnel, and "without the assistance of anesthesia, lubricant, or medical dilation," producing blood and feces.
The feds charged Fowlkes with drug and gun possession. That included a count based on the drugs pulled out of him. The trial court rejected his argument that the drugs seized from his anus were illegally obtained. Yesterday, in a revised opinion, the Ninth Circuit decided to put some limits on cops' freedom to root about in our collective asses.
The Ninth Circuit found the warrantless visual strip search reasonable, including the visual body cavity search, mostly on the grounds that the government arrests so many people it would be impractical to get warrants to strip-search them, and because jail safety is important because the government arrests so many people. As Dilbert would say, that's not being circular, it's having no loose ends.
But the Court noted actual limits on intrusions into our bodies. "Therefore, while visual cavity searches that do not require physical entry into a prisoner’s body are generally permissible without a warrant during the jail intake process, physical cavity searches generally are not." Did the Court recognize a general rule against sergeants yanking things out of our asses without a warrant? Not exactly. It's the Ninth Circuit, sure, but this is still America. The Court avoided a broad rule. "We need not and do not determine whether a warrant is required to seize evidence discovered during a visual strip search from an inmate’s body because the officers’ conduct here was unreasonable for other reasons." The Court decided that the search was unreasonable — and thus violated the Fourth Amendment — because the officers violated the jail's own written policies requiring a medically trained person conduct cavity searches, because Fowlkes posed no immediate threat, because the officers had no training in such measures that would let them evaluate whether they were safe or necessary, and because the officers did not take any steps to minimize trauma:
Here, the LBPD officers did not take adequate steps to minimize Fowlkes’ physical trauma. They did not, for example, use lubrication or ensure that the removal was conducted under sanitary conditions; they did not seek the guidance or assistance of medical personnel; and they did not assure themselves that removing the object from Fowlkes’ rectum was safe—indeed they did not know the size, shape, or substance of the object. Further, they did nothing to mitigate his anxiety or emotional trauma. They did not, for example, offer him options for removing the contraband or secure his compliance; they did not (and could not) assure him that the removal was safe or being conducted by a trained professional; and they did not (and could not) assure him that the procedure was legal and in keeping with LBPD policy rather than an arbitrary show of force.
The Ninth Circuit — bless its heart — seems to think that physical and emotional trauma were a bug, not a feature, of the officers' approach. But at least we know: there are limits to the judiciary's willingness to let cops conduct medical procedures on you.
So the Ninth Circuit reversed Fowlkes' conviction — on the one count arising from the drugs found in his rectum. It upheld the rest of the conviction.
Isn't justice majestic?