For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on an investigative series about police abuse in South Carolina. I’ve found a dizzying number of cases, including illegal arrests, botched raids, fatal shootings and serious questions about how all those incidents are investigated. Many of these cases were previously unreported, or if they were reported, the initial reports were a far cry from what actually happened. The series will run at some point in the next week. But in the meantime, I want to share one particularly horrifying incident that I came across this week while researching the series.
According to a federal lawsuit filed by attorney Robert Phillips, what you see in the video below occurred in the town of Aiken, S.C., starting at about 12:20 p.m. on Oct. 2, 2014. The two occupants of the car are black. All the police officers are white.
Here’s what happened: Lakeya Hicks and Elijah Pontoon were in Hicks’s car just a couple of blocks from downtown Aiken when they were pulled over by Officer Chris Medlin of the Aiken Department of Public Safety. Hicks was driving. She had recently purchased the car, so it still had temporary tags.
In the video, Medlin asks Hicks to get out, then tells her that he stopped her because of the “paper tag” on her car. This already is a problem. There’s no law against temporary tags in South Carolina, so long as they haven’t expired.
Medlin then asks Pontoon for identification. Since he was in the passenger seat, Pontoon wouldn’t have been required to provide ID even if the stop had been legitimate. Still, he provides his driver’s license to Medlin. A couple of minutes later, Medlin tells Hicks that her license and tags check out. (You can see the time stamp in the lower left corner of the video.) This should be the end of the stop — which, again, should never have happened in the first place.
Instead, Medlin orders Pontoon out of the vehicle and handcuffs him. He also orders Hicks out of the car. Pontoon then asks Medlin what’s happening. Medlin ignores him. Pontoon asks again. Medlin responds that he’ll “explain it all in a minute.” Several minutes later, a female officers appears. Medlin then tells Pontoon, “Because of your history, I’ve got a dog coming in here. Gonna walk a dog around the car.” About 30 seconds later, he adds, “You gonna pay for this one, boy.”
Moments later, an officer named Clark Smith arrives with a police dog. He walks around the car with his dog. A fourth police officer then shows up. The four officers then spend the next 15 minutes conducting a thorough search of the car. Early into the search, Medlin exclaims, “Uh-huh!” as if he has found something incriminating. But nothing comes of it.
After the search of the car comes up empty, Medlin tells the female officer to “search her real good,” referring to Hicks. The personal search of Hicks is conducted off camera, but according to the complaint filed by Phillips, it allegedly involved exposing Hicks’s breasts on the side of the road in a populated area. The complaint also alleges that this was all done in direct view of the three male officers. That search, too, produced no contraband.
The officers then turn their attention to Pontoon. Medlin asks Pontoon to get out of the car. He cuffs him and begins to pat him down. Toward the end of the first video, at about the 12:46:30 mark, he tells Pontoon: “You’ve got something here right between your legs. There’s something hard right there between your legs.” Medlin says that he’s going to “put some gloves on.”
The anal probe happens out of direct view of the camera, but the audio leaves little doubt about what’s happening. Pontoon at one point says that one of the officers is grabbing his hemorrhoids. Medlin appears to reply, “I’ve had hemorrhoids, and they ain’t that hard.” At about 12:47:15 in the video, the audio actually suggests that two officers may have inserted fingers into Pontoon’s rectum, as one asks, “What are you talking about, right here?” The other replies, “Right straight up in there.”
Pontoon then again tells the officers that they’re pushing on a hemorrhoid. One officer responds, “If that’s a hemorrhoid, that’s a hemorrhoid, all right? But that don’t feel like no hemorrhoid to me.”
The officers apparently continue to search Pontoon’s rectum for another three minutes. They found no contraband. At 12:50:25, Medlin tells Pontoon to turn around and explains that he suspects him because he recognized him from when he worked narcotics. “Now I know you from before, from when I worked dope. I seen you. That’s why I put a dog on the car.”
That was Medlin’s “reasonable suspicion” to call for a drug dog — he thought he recognized Pontoon from a drug case. Medlin could well have been correct about recognizing Pontoon. He has a lengthy criminal history that includes drug charges, although his record appears to be clean since 2006, save for one arrest for “failure to comply.” Of course, even if Medlin did recognize Pontoon, that in itself isn’t cause to even stop him, much less search his car, or to subject him to a roadside cavity search.
With no contraband and no traffic violation to justify the stop in the first place, Medlin concluded the stop by giving Hicks a “courtesy warning,” although according to the complaint, there’s no indication of what the warning was actually for. Perhaps it was to warn to steer clear of police officers in Aiken.
These incredibly invasive searches have been in the news quite a bit over the past several years. Back in 2013, there were a couple of cases in New Mexico in which motorists were given cavity searches to probe for illicit drugs. One was also subjected to X-rays and a forced colonoscopy. But in both of those cases the police officers first obtained warrants. In both cases, the searches were administered by medical staff. And both cases resulted in substantial settlements. Days later, a third victim alleged she was anally and vaginally probed by Border Patrol agents, in this case without a warrant. In January 2014, I wrote about yet another case from New Mexico and found a number of similar incidents around the country:
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 following October, we learned of two more cases in Tennessee.
The Supreme Court has laid out a series of balancing tests to evaluate the legitimacy of these sorts of searches. The factors to consider are the scope of the intrusion, the manner in which the search is conducted, the justification for the search and the place where the search is conducted. The search of Pontoon seems extreme by all four measurements. The scope of the intrusion couldn’t be much more severe. It appears that two officers stuck fingers into his rectum. The manner? Well, it was done by two cops, not doctors. And it was done as Pontoon lay on the street, not in an examination room. The justification? Officer Medlin might have remembered Pontoon’s face from doing drug cases years ago. The place? On the side of the road, in public, near downtown Aiken.
According to the best practices promoted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, this is the ideal procedure for performing a cavity search:
Note that the search depicted in the video not only meets none of those specifications, but the specifications themselves don’t even contemplate the possibility of a police officer performing a roadside cavity search for illicit drugs. It doesn’t even seem to be a possibility.
I asked John Wesley Hall, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a Fourth Amendment expert and purveyor of the site FourthAmendment.com, to view the videos and complaint in this case. Here was his response:
This is quite appalling, to say the least. I’ve encountered on the street strip searches of men in my own practice, but never of a woman on the street, and then this case has the added anal probing. Worse yet: There is no legal justification for anything, including the stop because criminal history alone isn’t reasonable suspicion. Everything starting with the stop was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, and it just got progressively worse.
What this indicates to me is a police department with utter disregard for the civil liberties of the citizens it is supposed to “serve and protect.” The plaintiffs need to try this case in court to make sure that the defendants get the proper exposure. If these facts prove true, the city would be wise to settle. The city can’t be made to pay punitive damages, but the officers sure can. Some departments would stand good for damages, but not punitives, so they would be the responsibility of the officers alone.
As Malley v. Briggs (1986) holds, “As the qualified immunity defense has evolved, it provides ample protection to all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”* That’s the Aiken PD. This is so far beyond the pale that the entire department should be liable for failure to have a basic understanding of the Fourth Amendment for lack of training and oversight. Only that level of callousness explains the other officers standing by and doing nothing or participating. What were they thinking when this was happening? “We’re the police and we can do whatever we want”? Many officers regretfully think that way. This is more proof of that.
Interestingly, six months after Officer Medlin probed Elijah Pontoon’s rectum on the side of the road, the city of Aiken put out a press release announcing that for the sixth consecutive year, the Aiken Department of Public Safety had earned accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. From the press release:
The accreditation confirmed that the department “demonstrates a commitment to professional excellence in policy and practice.” Chief [Charles] Barranco said that there is a culture of professionalism at the department that is demonstrated not only by law enforcement accreditation but also by the department’s commitment to maintaining a high ISO (fire insurance) rating in its fire operations. Barranco expressed gratitude to the previous command staff, for “setting us on a path to success.” Chief Barranco said, “being accredited is just the normal course of business for our employees. They are trained a certain way and indoctrinated into a system of policies and procedures that just become part of their everyday work. I am extremely proud of how they interact with citizens and provide services to our community, while maintaining excellence and professionalism, even during some very trying circumstances.”
Aiken public information officer Capt. David Turno said that the incident had been investigated and that Medlin still works for the police department. In response to further queries about the incident, he wrote in an email, “The City of Aiken denies the Plaintiffs’ allegations and is vigorously defending this lawsuit. We will have no further comment about the facts of this case during the pendency of this litigation.”