The stop of Felix Booker in Oak Ridge, Tenn. started with a traffic stop for Booker’s expired tags. It ended with police transporting Booker to a hospital, where he was involuntarily paralyzed, according to a federal appeals court ruling Monday. Overturning Booker’s conviction for possession with intent to distribute, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held 2-1 that police could not use drugs discovered in Booker’s buttocks as evidence against him, because doctors’ paralysis, intubation, and anal probe violated Booker’s Fourth Amendment rights.
The traffic stop of Booker and his brother escalated when police detected the scent of marijuana in the car. After a drug dog alerted police, they searched his car and found .06 grams of marijuana, in addition to some other baggies with just residue. Although anything less than 14 grams of marijuana constitutes a misdemeanor, which allows a citation by police but not arrest, police arrested Booker for felony possession of marijuana and took him to the police station. There, he was questioned and strip-searched, before police determined that his continued fidgeting was concerning. They transported him, naked and covered by a blanket, to the hospital for an assessment, where a doctor threatened to paralyze Booker if he did not consent in the doctor’s anal probe.
Ultimately, a doctor found a rock of crack cocaine weighing about 5 grams that was used to convict Booker and sentence him to five years in prison. The court found that the police had taken suspects to this same doctor when they suspected drugs in the anal cavity, and that they “effectively used Dr. LaPaglia as a tool to perform a search on Booker’s person.” As a consequence, the fact that LaPaglia had a medical purpose for removing an obstruction from Booker’s anus did not “immuze the procedures from Fourth Amendment scrutiny.” This type of intrusion, they held, “is one of the greatest dignitary intrusions that could flow from a medical procedure.” (quoting from another decision) “Such a procedure is degrading to the person being probed—both from his perspective and society’s.”
Law enforcement officers’ commitment to drug convictions has long led police officers to test the limits of “reasonable” searches. In its ruling Monday, the Sixth Circuit cited a 1952 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which a suspect who swallowed pills during a police search of his home was taken to the hospital, where officers asked doctors to pump his stomach against his will. The Supreme Court overturned his subsequent conviction for possession of morphine tablets, on the grounds that the deputies’ conduct was so invasive as to “shock the conscience.”
In another incident just earlier this month, Texas police searched three women’s vaginas for marijuana in what also started as a traffic stop.