Massachusetts Drug Suspects Can Be X-Rayed Without Consent, Federal Appeals Court Rules

Most Massachusetts drug offense prosecutions involve challenges to how police obtained the illegal drugs that a defendant is charged with possessing. As a Dedham, Massachusetts drug crimes lawyer, I try to prevent this evidence from being admitted at trial, through what are called pre-trial “Motions to Suppress.” The legal bases of these challenges typically revolve around the validity of searches, whether search warrants that might have been issued were valid, whether police had probable cause to conduct a warrantless search, and a variety of other legal reasons.

One method for a police search for illegal drugs was recently challenged in federal court in Boston, with an interesting outcome.

A suspect was arrested for operating a motor vehicle without a license, a Massachusetts motor vehicle violation. However, he police officer who stopped the suspect quickly came to suspect that more than just a traffic violation was taking place. The officer was told by a confidential informant whom the officer knew well and trusted, that suspect had inserted a package of crack cocaine into his rectum just prior to his being arrested. Because the arresting officer trusted the confidential informant due to the informant’s supposedly having produced reliable information for a considerable period of time previously, the officer asked the suspect to submit to a rectal examination for evidence of concealed drugs. The suspect refused. No surprise there.

Following this refusal, the officer then sought a search warrant. In an affidavit supporting the warrant application, the officer stated the information provided to him by the confidential informant and noted the informant’s favorable track record. A state court judge issued the search warrant, which specifically authorized a medical examination of the suspect’s rectum for the presence of hidden cocaine. The suspect was taken to a local hospital so that doctors could perform the search. When a digital (finger) search of the suspect’s rectum revealed no contraband, the doctor then ordered an X-ray of the suspect’s abdominal area. The type of X-ray ordered by the doctor reveals images of the stomach, kidneys and other organs surrounding the rectum. The X-ray revealed no foreign objects in the plaintiff’s rectum, or upper or lower gastrointestinal tract, after which the suspect was released by police and no drug-related charges were filed against him.

This suspect later filed a federal civil rights suit in U.S. District Court in Boston, alleging violation of his civil rights and privacy rights as a result of the medical searches performed on him at the hospital. Essentially, the now-plaintiff argued that the medical examinations constituted and unreasonable search, which he claimed violated his Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. More specifically, the plaintiff’s argument was that the police aggravated the intrusion by searching beyond the scope of the search warrant, by searching his stomach as well as his rectal cavity.

A federal judge quickly found in favor of the police officers and the hospital. But that didn’t stop this person – he went on to file an appeal with the federal appeals court in Boston, which is the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.

The result? No lucky breaks for this suspect: The unanimous appeals court panel of three judges affirmed the lower court’s ruling in favor of the police and the hospital. The court noted the importance of tackling this type of question, writing: “We have not yet considered the circumstances under which the police may be justified in compelling a suspect to submit to an x-ray search of a part of his body. This case raises interesting questions regarding the constitutional limits of searches conducted by the police with the aid of modern technology and medical professionals.” But the court found no constitutional violations in search warrants authorizing an x-ray search of a suspect’s internal body cavities.” In weighing the reasonableness of an intrusion of a suspect’s bodily integrity, a court “must consider the strength of the suspicion driving the search, the potential harm to the suspect’s health and dignity posed by the search, and the prosecution’s need for the evidence sought. “We hold today that … although the x-ray was an encroachment on the appellant’s privacy interests, this encroachment was plainly outweighed by other factors… A diagnostic x-ray is a routine medical procedure that is brisk, painless, and generally regarded as safe.” The court also noted that the evidence sought in the X-ray search was unavoidably necessary to confirm or deny the officers’ belief that the suspect had committed a Massachusetts drug crime.

So, it seems that if someone is stopped by police and is in possession of illegal drugs, the phrase “shove it” won’t help much.

The decision is Spencer v. Roche, et al.