ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Supreme Court this week limited the use of body cavity searches that police are authorized to perform in their attempts to obtain evidence.
In an opinion released Wednesday, Aug. 14, the court in a 5-1 decision ruled that Minneapolis police weren't reasonably justified in retrieving a baggie of drugs from a man's body cavity using sedation and forced extraction.
On Aug. 8, 2015, Minneapolis police were investigating the sale of crack cocaine and used a confidential informant to buy from Guntallwon Brown. After the informant bought the drugs from Brown, police said they saw Brown hand something off to another person.
Police arrested Brown for selling drugs and an officer said they saw him shove his hands down his pants and later “grinding his buttocks against the seat [of a chair]” in the police station, court records show. The officer believed Brown tried to hide narcotics in his body cavity and got approval to perform a strip search.
The officer said he saw a clear baggie hanging out of Brown's anus when he “looked between [Brown’s] cheeks” and applied for a search warrant to perform a body cavity search and to remove the bag. A judge approved the warrant authorizing the search.
Brown was taken to North Memorial Hospital and asked to remove the baggie. When he refused, Dr. Christopher Palmer asked if Brown would be willing to take a laxative. Officers then asked the doctor to force Brown to take the laxative but the doctor refused, saying the warrant didn't call for that.
The police officer then submitted a second warrant, which a judge approved, authorizing a physician to “use any medical/physical means necessary to have Brown vomit or deficate [sic] the contents of his stomach or physically by any means necessary remove the narcotics from the anal cavity so officers can retrieve the narcotics.” The officer then took Brown to Hennepin County Medical Center, where Brown again refused to remove the baggie.
There, Dr. Paul Nystrom gave Brown a series of options he could pursue in removing the baggie, including removing it with a speculum and forceps. Brown didn't respond after being asked several times what he'd prefer despite being of sound mind and able to answer.
Brown was then strapped to a surgical table, placed under sedation and probed with a speculum. Nystrom used forceps to remove the bag containing 2.9 grams of cocaine from his rectum while police officers looked on. Nystrom later testified that he understood the “any means necessary” language in the search warrant to mean “[a]nything reasonable, any reasonable means necessary.”
The state charged Brown with one count of fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance. Brown attempted to have the evidence suppressed but the district court allowed it and Brown was convicted after a jury trial.
Brown then appealed the conviction, which the appeals court affirmed. The Supreme Court then granted Brown's request for review.
"If a coerced invasion of one’s anal cavity — an area inherently personal and private — while sedated and in front of strangers is not a serious and substantial intrusion of an individual’s dignitary interest in personal privacy and bodily integrity, we can not fathom what is," Justice Paul Thissen wrote in the court's opinion. "We conclude that the second Winston factor strongly favors finding the anoscopy to be an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment."
“Think about what happened here: Forcing somebody to be sedated, to have an IV stuck in their arm and have a speculum put up their rectum while these two police officers are in the room is a pretty big invasion of one’s privacy," Hennepin County Public Defender Mary Moriarty told Minnesota Public Radio.
Justice Anne McKeig in her dissenting opinion said the seizure of the baggie was reasonable, constitutional and "necessary to charge and prove the drug-possession crime."
"Given all relevant circumstances, the intrusion of Brown’s privacy is mitigated by his refusal to cooperate," McKeig wrote.
The court ruled to suppress the evidence obtained from the body cavity search and sent the case back to the circuit court for a new trial.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman defended the Minneapolis police officers' actions in seizing the drugs.
"This is a case where the police officers did everything right," Freeman said in a statement. "They obtained a search warrant and they took the suspect to a medical professional. But it is the Supreme Court’s role to set judicial policy."
Freeman said his office has 90 days to decide if it will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. If it does not appeal, the case against Brown will be dismissed.