The drug war works its way into your pants

New Mexico state police
(AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

You may have read about the recent cases in New Mexico in which routine traffic stops degenerated into cavity searches, forced enemas, and even an involuntary colonoscopy. The man who was subjected to the latter (he got the other stuff, too) recently settled with Hidalgo County and the city of Deming for $1.6 million. That money will come from taxpayers and insurance, of course, not from the deputies who put him through it. (Police officials still insist the deputies did nothing wrong.)

Hidalgo county is now fighting two other lawsuits by people who say they were subjected to unlawful cavity searches. Another woman is suing the U.S. Customs and Border Protection for a cavity search agents performed on her, also in New Mexico. And today the A.P. is reporting on yet another lawsuit related to cavity searches, again in Hidalgo County. And there may be more on the way:

Kennedy said her law firm is getting a number of calls about similar cases along the New Mexico-Mexico border. She believes law enforcement agencies are under pressure to spend federal drug-fighting money but are overstepping their authority.

“They are detaining people for long periods of time while going on fishing expeditions,” Kennedy said. “They are subjecting people to unconstitutional searches, and for what?”

Adam Perlmutter, a New York attorney who has written about body cavity searches, said federal courts have ruled that body cavity searches are allowed in felony cases. In suspected misdemeanor cases, officers need a “reasonable, articulated basis” to perform a body cavity search.

“They can state a clear reason for believing that a search is needed, especially if they are look for contraband or narcotics,” he said.

I’d encourage you to ruminate on that last quote for a moment. In order to stop people from getting high, the courts have decided it’s okay for police officers to stick their fingers into your anus and/or vagina to check for intoxicants. All to keep you safe, of course. And it isn’t just New Mexico. Another lawsuit in Texas alleges that vaginal searches of women after routine traffic stops was “standard procedure” among some Texas highway patrol officers. Oakland recently paid $4.6 million to 39 men who were illegally strip searched in public. A similar lawsuit was filed in Chicago just this week. There have been other recent allegations of cavity searches in Citrus County,Florida; Coral Springs, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; and Mission, Kansas. In Milwaukee, a group of four cops spent two years subjecting women to illegal cavity searches after traffic stops. They at least have been arrested and charged.

The procedures to which police subjected the New Mexico man who recently settled his lawsuit were illegal. But they were also approved by a judge. That judge is protected by absolute immunity. And, again, the police officials in Hidalgo County still say the deputies in question did nothing wrong. So the taxpayers will pay, but no one will be held accountable.

A couple of months ago, I asked a couple medical ethics specialists about all of this. They told me that the doctors who performed the procedures were also likely in violation of their professional ethical obligations. But here too, it was extremely unlikely anyone would be sanctioned.

So to sum up: When it comes to cavity searches for drugs, what’s legal is bad enough. But it turns out that police and medical professionals might also do some illegal things to you that are even more awful. And despite the illegality of those procures, and that they’re medically unethical, there’s a good chance that they’ll all get away with it.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · January 30