It is well known to the police that persons may conceal illegal drugs they are transporting, even in the private parts of their bodies. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and the courts are frequently called upon to adjudicate particularly whether searches without a warrant are constitutional. How this applies to searches of a suspect’s private parts in public was explored in a reported opinion last week from Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals in an opinion on the case of Shawna Lynn Faith v. State of Maryland.
Faith appealed a conviction for possession with intent to distribute cocaine, following the seizure of drugs from her private parts following a roadside stop. At trial, police officers testified that Faith was pulled over for following too closely. In the vehicle with her were a female companion and a young child. An officer noted track marks on the defendant’s arms, and a dog from a K-9 unit alerted to drugs in the vehicle. After finding a pipe and crack cocaine, a female officer was called to the scene to do a search of the defendant.
The female sergeant testified to having done many “female searches,” and said she followed her normal protocol of taking the suspect away from the other officers. Although she did not touch the defendant, she did have her pull away her shorts, and ultimately show the sergeant her genital area where drugs were found. A motion to suppress the evidence seized was denied by the trial court, and the conviction was appealed.
The appellate Court reversed the conviction. It noted that there were no exigent circumstances that would have prevented the police from arresting the defendant, who had been patted down and no weapons were found, and transporting her to a police station for a more thorough search of her person. The Court found that where police chose to conduct a non-exigent search of a suspect’s private parts in a public setting constitutional constraints require more than shielding others from seeing her private area. Here, the officer conducted a visual inspection of a suspect’s genital area, in daylight on the side of an interstate with heavy traffic, between two vehicles, while her friend and child were standing nearby.
The Court held that this search “unreasonably infringed on her personal privacy interests when balanced against legitimate needs of the police to seize the contraband she carried on her person.” Therefore, the drugs seized could not be used at trial.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.