Fault Lines
27 April 2017

Texas To Cops: Get Your Fingers Out Of Women’s Bodies

Sept. 2, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — If you happen to meet former Texas state trooper Kelly Helleson, you might not want to shake her hand. Since Helleson’s illegal, abusive conduct inspired a new Texas law that went into effect on September 1, she’s hardly a hero. Also, you might want to think twice about where former Trooper Helleson’s hands have been.

In July 2012, dashcam video footage captured Helleson conducting roadside body cavity searches of Angel Dobbs and her niece Ashley Dobbs. Trooper David Farrell had pulled the women over because he says he saw the women throw a cigarette butt out the car window. When he became increasingly suspicious that they might have had marijuana in the vehicle, Trooper Farrell enlisted the help of a female officer to search Angel and Ashley Dobbs.

Trooper Helleson allegedly inserted her hands in the women’s vaginas and anuses . . . without even changing latex gloves in between. The women claim that the invasive searches took place in plain view of other motorists.

The dashcam video of the traffic stop went viral. Ashley and Angel Dobbs sued, eventually settling their federal civil rights case against the state for $185,000.

In May 2014, State District Judge Dominique Collins sentenced Helleson to two years of probation and a $2,000 fine. Helleson pleaded guilty to two counts of official oppression, though she insisted, “At no time did I ever stick my finger inside someone’s body.”

NB: If you ever have to utter the official statement “at no time did I ever stick my finger inside someone’s body,” you might take it as a prime opportunity to take stock of where you’ve ended up in life. This is not the sort of thing said in response to anything you might have aspired to at your elementary school career fair.

Though the Dobbs case put reforms in motion, Angel and Ashley are far from alone in suffering the indignities of improper cavity searches during traffic stops in the state. Responding to public outrage — and probably a little public cringing — the Texas Department of Public Safety revised its training protocols for body cavity searches. However, reports of the improper searches continue.

For example, earlier this month in Houston, Charnesia Corley told CNN that, while in a gas station parking lot, a sheriff’s deputy stripped her from the waist down, ordered her to bend over, then forcibly conducted a manual search of Corley’s genitals.

Without A Warrant, Shouldn’t They At Least Buy You Dinner First?

As of 12:01 a.m. on September 1, 2015, however, Texas law requires police officers to show probable cause before probing a person’s naughty bits by the side of the road.

More precisely, Governor Greg Abbott signed Texas House Bill 324, creating Section 1, Chapter 18, Article 18.24 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. It provides in relevant part:

Notwithstanding any other law, 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.

The statute defines ‘body cavity search’ as “an inspection that is conducted of a person’s anal or vaginal cavity in any manner, but the term does not include a pat-down.”

Apparently, the definition’s final clause and the conjunction ‘but’ were necessary. I shudder to think of the befuddled officer who truly isn’t sure whether he’s still allowed to conduct pat-downs if they can’t include “patting down” the suspect’s anal or vaginal cavities.

How Much Privacy Can Your Anal And Vaginal Cavities Reasonably Expect?

The established need for a novel code provision to address warrantless body cavity searches during traffic stops in Texas is, in itself, disturbing.

Body cavity searches are only reasonable under the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures in very few, very limited circumstances. They are, after all, about as highly invasive as state action can get.

In most law enforcement settings, police officers must obtain a proper search warrant. Officers in jails and prisons may conduct warrantless strip searches and cavity searches because of the heightened security concerns posed by those conditions. Federal courts haven’t established a particularly useful, unified standard to apply to cavity searches at airports and borders, but officers can perform the searches with something shy of probable cause, probably roughly equivalent to reasonable suspicion.

In short, the new addition to the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure codifies a civil right already guaranteed to everyone living under the United States Constitution. Making the right express is a fine thing for the Texas Legislature to do. Police officers like Kelly Helleson making it necessary to make the right express is a sad thing for the Texas Legislature to have to do.

Blithe searches of a citizen’s innermost physical space are most likely to happen when officers feel detached from the people they encounter. Sure, cavity searches may be necessary in custodial scenarios. Then, an officer’s willingness to don a glove for the greater good reveals little about the respect he has for the people he is supposed to serve and protect. During a routine traffic stop, though, it suggests that the officer has lost touch with what it feels like to have a stranger insist that you quietly, passively accept probing fingers inside your body, without having been arrested, possibly having done nothing wrong.

Do police encounter scenarios where immediate safety or national security demand the extraordinary measure of a manual body cavity search? Sure, in some rare circumstances. Do those circumstances include routine traffic stops? With no arrests, no warrant? Just a rubber glove and a sense of authoritarian entitlement? Not a chance.

Unfortunately for the victims of former Trooper Helleson’s misconduct, they didn’t even get the benefit of a clean glove.

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    8 January 2016 at 6:36 pm - Reply

    […] citizens not knowing whether they ordinarily have to let cops search the backseats of their cars or probe their vaginas and anuses by the side of road is decidedly not […]