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Name: U.S. v. Fowlkes
Case #: 11-50273
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 08/25/2014

Denial of motion to suppress evidence reversed where police, who had no warrant and no medical training, forcibly removed drugs from suspect’s rectum. Fowlkes was the subject of surveillance by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents and the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD). After witnessing Fowlkes engage in what appeared to be a drug transaction, LBPD officers stopped his vehicle, ostensibly for an expired registration. Police saw drugs in the car and Fowlkes was arrested. During intake at the jail, Fowlkes was strip searched. Suspecting that Fowlkes was attempting to push contraband into his rectum, Officer Gibbs tased him. When he observed a plastic bag partially protruding from Fowlkes’ rectum, Gibbs forcibly removed it. The bag contained drugs. After his motion to suppress evidence was denied, Fowlkes was convicted in district court of drug offenses. He appealed. Held: Reversed in part. The Fourth Amendment requires a warrant before officers seize drugs within a person’s body unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies. Exigent circumstances did not justify the warrantless search here, as Fowlkes was handcuffed, tased, and surrounded by five officers at the time of the seizure. The government has a strong interest in preventing importation of drugs into the jail, but did not demonstrate that adherence to the warrant requirement was impractical under these circumstances. While warrantless visual body cavity searches may be performed during the jail intake process for the sake of practicality and safety, the relatively small number of inmates concealing contraband in their body cavities, along with technological advances that speed application for a warrant, reflects there is no “special need” for officers to conduct warrantless body cavity searches during jail intake.

The warrantless body cavity search was unreasonable in the manner it was executed. “Even if a warrant is not required, a search is not beyond Fourth Amendment scrutiny; for it must be reasonable in its scope and manner of execution.” Here, Officer Gibbs reflected an intent to conduct a warrantless body cavity search before he saw the plastic bag, for he brought rubber gloves and a taser with him to the cell where defendant was held; the scope of the search intruded beyond the surface of the body; and the search was conducted in an unreasonable manner. This is further evidenced by the fact that officers violated the jail’s written policy by failing to conduct the search “under sanitary conditions” and by not using a trained medical person. The court reversed the conviction for the drug offense that was based on the evidence obtained during the strip search.