Appeals Court Throws Out Woman's Drug Conviction Because of Strip Search Conducted on the Side of a Busy Highway

Appeals Court Throws Out Woman's Drug Conviction Because of Strip Search Conducted on the Side of a Busy Highway

The Fourth Amendment grants the right to be free from unreasonable searches. Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals recently made an important ruling in a case dealing with whether the physical search of a woman in daylight hours on the side of a busy highway was proper.

The non-exigent – meaning a search that isn’t urgent -- visual inspection of the genital area of a person suspected of concealing controlled dangerous substances, in daylight, while the person stood between two police cruisers with emergency lights flashing, along the shoulder of an interstate highway, as moderate to heavy traffic passed by and the woman’s companion and young child watched, violated the searchee’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches, the appeals court held.

Frederick County traffic stop

The ruling started with a traffic stop in Frederick County, Maryland in 2017. An officer doing traffic enforcement on Interstate 70 noticed that a motorist’s vehicle was following too closely to another vehicle traveling westbound at the speed limit in moderate to heavy traffic. The officer had the woman pull over to the right shoulder of the highway.

The searchee was in the driver’s seat, a female companion was in the passenger seat, and the searchee’s three-year-old son was in the back seat. The searchee was wearing cut-off jean shorts and a top that did not cover her arms, according to court documents. While explaining why he made the stop, the Maryland police officer noticed “track marks” on her arms. The deputy asked where she was coming from. She answered that they were returning home to Cumberland, after taking “someone else’s child down to Baltimore.” The officer said he considered a five-hour round trip for that purpose to be “odd” and also noticed that the two women were squinting. He testified that when people are under the influence of drugs, their eyes can be sensitive to light.

The officer requested that a K-9 unit be sent to the scene. The dog alerted at the doors of the car. The officer also called for another officer to “conduct a female search,” which yielded drug paraphernalia and crack cocaine. While the vehicle was being searched, the searchee, her companion, and her child stood with another deputy on the passenger side of one of the two police vehicles already there. When the officer arrived to conduct the “female search,” the woman was searched while standing between two of the police vehicles. During the search, both deputies testified, they were “facing away” from the woman because “obviously there’s a privacy issue.” The woman’s companion, who was holding the young boy, was standing next to one of the officers.

The female officer who conducted the search testified that her search was consistent with her routine practice for roadside searches involving controlled dangerous substances. She placed the woman behind her cruiser and asked her to open her shorts and hold out her underwear and said she was going to search the woman’s vagina and external genital area. In pulling the underwear away from the woman’s body and exposing her vaginal area, the officer discovered a condom containing what the officer believed to be crack cocaine. At that point, the woman was placed under arrest, handcuffed, and read her Miranda rights. Her companion was also arrested and handcuffed after a search.

The suppression court denied the searchee’s motion to exclude the evidence recovered in the search but questioned the admissibility of her statements made without a Miranda warning. At a later hearing, the suppression court ruled that the searchee’s statements before she received Miranda advisements were inadmissible but declined to exclude subsequent statements.

After the drug evidence obtained from the roadside search and the admissible statements were presented via an agreed statement of facts, the Circuit Court for Frederick County, in a bench trial, convicted the woman of possessing cocaine with the intent to distribute based on the evidence recovered during the warrantless search at the traffic stop. She was sentenced to 20 years with all but 18 months suspended, plus three years of probation.

Conviction overturned

The searchee appealed. She contended that the trial court made a mistake in denying her motion to suppress the evidence recovered from the strip search.

The State argued that the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the amount of intrusion on the defendant was extremely minimal given that she was not exposed to anyone other than one of the policemen who took every step possible to try and ensure the defendant’s privacy.

The Court of Special Appeals said the case required it to decide whether such a visual body search, in which a female officer conducted a “look-in” at the woman’s genital area, was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, given the public manner and location in which that search occurred.

“Because the State failed to establish any exigent reason to perform this inspection on the shoulder of a highway in the presence of onlookers, instead of a more private setting that would lessen the intrusion into [the searchee’s] personal privacy, we shall reverse her conviction,” the court said.

A Baltimore criminal defense lawyer can help if you are facing criminal charges. The attorneys at The Law Offices of Thomas J. Maronick have experience handling Baltimore criminal cases. You can contact Thomas Maronick on his cellphone at 202.288.0167, the law office at 410.934.3007 or via our website for a free consultation.