Even after state lawmakers told them to stop, Texas police haven't quit searching people's private parts — in public — for marijuana.
Charnesia Corley, a 21-year-old black woman, said officers with the Harris County Sheriff's Department on June 21 held her down at a store parking lot and searched her vagina for pot without consent. "I feel like they sexually assaulted me," Corley told ABC 13's Kevin Quinn. "I really do. I feel disgusted, downgraded, humiliated."
The sheriff's office said it stopped Corley for allegedly running a stop sign, and initiated the search — with consent, the department claims — after smelling marijuana. Deputies ultimately found 0.02 ounces of pot, which is barely enough for the average joint.
Texas passed a law to stop this from happening
Corley's case isn't the first time something like this happened. After similar accusations in the past, Texas legislators earlier this year moved to clarify that the Fourth Amendment's protections against warrantless searches apply to searches of people's private parts in public.
Texas's legislators and governor approved the law in June, making it so "a peace officer may not conduct a body cavity search of a person during a traffic stop unless the officer first obtains a search warrant pursuant to this chapter authorizing the body cavity search." But the measure doesn't take effect until September.
The law's passage followed several accusations similar to Corley's. Reason's Jacob Sullum, a journalist who closely follows the war on drugs, found several recent stories involving state troopers conducting unnecessary body cavity searches on open, public roads because the officers thought they smelled marijuana. Here's one example, from Sullum's story:
On Memorial Day in 2012, Alexandria Randle and Brandy Hamilton, both in their 20s, were driving home to Houston from Surfside Beach when they were pulled over for speeding on Highway 288 in Brazoria County. Claiming to smell marijuana, Trooper Nathaniel Turner ordered the women out of the car. After he found a small amount of pot in the car, Turner called a female trooper, Jennie Bui, and asked her to perform a body cavity search on both women. "If you hid something in there, we are going to find it," Bui says on the dashcam video of the traffic stop. It turned out there was nothing to find. The stop ended with a ticket for possession of drug paraphernalia.
"It was extremely humiliating, especially with my entire family, including my 8-year-old nieces and my nephew…in the back of the car," Randle told HLN. "They saw all of this happening, as well as everybody on the side of the road….I have a whole different feeling when I see police officers now….It's a very touchy thing dealing with them."
This story by itself would likely be enough to inspire anyone to take a second look at how state laws and policies can be cleared up to prevent a situation like this from happening again. But Sullum found several other stories similar to Randle and Hamilton's, one of which resulted in a $185,000 payout to the women who police searched.
The Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect people from these types of searches. The Texas Department of Public Safety has even said the troopers' actions in the cases cited by Sullum violated their policies. But it seems like the law and policies aren't very well known.
Sullum explained it's not surprising that some law enforcement officials may be confused about the limits of the law, since they've been given so much legal latitude by courts to conduct other kinds of searches in the past:
The US Supreme Court has upheld routine strip searches of arrestees, even people accused of minor offenses such as marijuana possession or failure to wear a seat belt. In those cases the searches, aimed at finding weapons or contraband, took place in jail prior to confinement. But in 2003 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the Fourth Amendment allows warrantless inspection of body cavities in other settings as a "search incident to arrest."
But Texas lawmakers appear to be drawing the line after the latest incidents, telling police that people's private parts are off-limits.