The Massachusetts Appeals Court today affirmed a Boston man’s drug conviction, ruling it was appropriate for the police to conduct the strip search that led to the discovery of the cocaine. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Vick.
In May of 2007, Boston police officers were patrolling in an area of the city known for its illegal drug trade. They saw a man get into a car being driven by the defendant. The car was parked in a crosswalk and when it didn’t immediately move, the police decided to issue a citation. As an officer walked up to the car to place the ticket on the windshield, he saw the defendant sitting in the driver’s seat with his pants pulled down and his penis exposed. Intending to charge the defendant and possibly his passenger with some sort of sex crime, the officer ordered both men to exit the vehicle. The passenger was searched and found to possess a crack pipe in his pocket. When an officer pat frisked the defendant, he felt a hard object in the “cleft of the defendant’s buttocks.” The defendant refused to allow the officers to remove the object and violently struggled with the officers as they handcuffed him. Meanwhile, the police brought a narcotic-detecting dog to the defendant’s car and the dog alerted to the presence of drugs.
Back at the police station, the cops told the defendant they intended to conduct a strip search to recover the item hidden in his buttocks unless he voluntarily turned over the object. When the defendant refused, a team of 5-6 cops entered his cell and forcibly pulled down his pants. A plastic bag containing crack cocaine was wedged between the defendant’s buttocks. One of the officers “flicked” the bag and it fell to the ground. The defendant was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute (second offense), a school zone violation, and resisting arrest. He was convicted only of possession of cocaine. He appealed, arguing the motion to suppress the drugs he filed before the trial should have been allowed. The Appeals Court affirmed his conviction.
The Court first found it was appropriate for the police to order the defendant out of the car, as there was probable cause to believe he had committed a crime (indecent exposure). Once he was out of the vehicle, the police had the right to pat frisk him to determine whether he possessed any weapons or contraband. The question was whether the police had the constitutional authority to pull down the defendant’s pants at the police station and remove the plastic bag containing the drugs. The answer required the Court to decide whether this was a strip search with a visual body cavity examination or a manual body cavity search. A visual body cavity search requires the police to have probable cause to believe the defendant is carrying contraband or a weapon that could not be discovered without forcing the defendant to take off his clothes. A manual body cavity search, on the other hand, requires the police to obtain a search warrant from a judge (which is granted only if the police demonstrate a particularized need for such an intrusive search). The Court concluded the search of the defendant was a visual body cavity search, and a warrant was therefore not necessary. The Court pointed out there was no probing or touching of the defendant’s anal cavity and the drugs were easily removed without significant force. Because the police had probable cause to believe the defendant possessed drugs or contraband, the visual body cavity search was constitutional and the drugs were properly admitted at the defendant’s trial.