In a recent opinion, the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit addressed whether it was constitutionally reasonable for police to use a doctor – in this case, a doctor “who is known to conduct unconsented intrusive procedures when suspects are presented by the police” – to forcibly recover drugs from a man’s rectum. Judge Julia Smith Gibbons’ dissent notwithstanding, the 6th Circuit found that it was not reasonable, opining that the doctor’s behavior “shocks the conscience at least as much as the stomach pumping that the Supreme Court long ago held to violate due process.”
The case, United States v. Felix Booker, came to the appeals court from the Eastern District of Tennessee. It began just before noon on August 12, 2010, when K-9 officer Daniel Steakley pulled Booker over for expired plates. The stop quickly escalated into a drug search. Steakley had arrested Booker earlier the previous year. Although Steakley’s drug-sniffing dog and a physical patdown yielded less than a gram of marijuana, Steakley called for backup and immediately arrested Booker for felony possession of marijuana. Tennessee law designates anything less than 14.175 grams a misdemeanor, worthy of only a citation.
Apparently the arrest was based on the officer’s suspicion that Booker was hiding contraband on his person. According to the officers, Booker fidgeted with the back of his pants during the traffic stop and at the police station following his arrest. They subjected Booker to an even more intrusive patdown in the interrogation room and to a strip search at the detention facility. No contraband was retrieved from either, but the officers weren’t done with Booker. They transported him – naked, shackled, and covered only in a blanket – to a local emergency room. There they presented him Dr. Michael LaPaglia, the attending physician.
LaPaglia told Booker that he needed to examine his rectum and extract any items found there. Booker refused. LaPaglia informed Booker that he had little choice in the matter, injected Booker with muscle relaxants and probed his rectum, manually. When that search failed to produce any contraband, LaPaglia ordered general anesthesia and had Booker intubated for nearly an hour. LaPaglia then paralyzed Booker and successfully extracted what previous probes had failed to retrieve, five ounces of crack cocaine.
This was the third time in three years that officers from the sheriff’s department had sought LaPaglia’s assistance in extracting evidence from a suspect. This time, however, Booker appealed his conviction and the 6th Circuit reversed — on the grounds that LaPaglia in conjunction with the Oak Ridge Sheriff’s department had violated Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure.
After addressing why the doctor’s conduct was attributable to the police, the Court examined the reasonableness of the search by weighing the following three factors: (1) the extent to which the procedure may threaten the safety or health of the individual, (2) the extent of intrusion upon the individual’s dignitary interests in personal privacy and bodily integrity, and (3) the community’s interest in fairly and accurately determining guilt or innocence. In its analysis, the court highlighted the doctor’s failure to employ the less intrusive means used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection: an x-ray to confirm the presence of contraband, monitored bowel, and only engaging in an involuntary body cavity search after obtaining a court order.
The line between zealous police work and the violation of civil liberties can be fine. In Booker’s case, however, that line was egregiously and recklessly crossed with the help of a doctor, all too willing to set aside his oath: “First, do no harm.”