Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Knife Removal of Baggie from Penis Violates Fouth Amendment

US v. Edwards: Edwards was arrested late at night on a Baltimore street based on an allegation that he had earlier brandished a firearm. After his hands had been cuffed behind his back, an officer patted him down, finding neither a weapon nor contraband. After a van arrived to transport Edwards to the police station, the officers did another search. This time, one officer "pulled Edwards' pants and underwear six or seven inches away from his body" while another "directed a flashlight beam inside both the front and back of Edwards' underwear." The officers saw "a plastic sandwich baggie tied in a knot around Edwards' penis" that appeared to contain several smaller baggies indicative of drug trafficking. At this point, while one officer held the pants open, another "put on gloves, took a knife that he had in his possession, and cut the sandwich baggie off Edwards' penis with the knife." Edwards was eventually charged with possession with intent to distribute crack. He unsuccessfully moved to have the crack suppressed, then entered a conditional guilty plea.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the denial of the motion to suppress, 2-1. The court first held that the search that uncovered the baggie was a strip search, rejecting the Government's contention otherwise. Furthermore, the search fell into the category of "sexually invasive searches" which the Supreme Court addressed in Bell v. Wolfish, 441 US 520 (1979). Thus, among other things, the "manner in which the contraband is removed from a suspect" is a relevant consideration as to whether the search was reasonable. Looking to that issue, the court concluded that the officer's "use of a knife in cutting the sandwich baggie off Edwards' penis posed a significant and an unnecessary risk of injury to Edwards, transgressing well-settled standards of reasonableness." The court noted the lateness of the hour and that, in spite of needing a flashlight to find Edwards's stash, he did not use the light when actually removing it. The court also rejected the Government's argument that the nature of the underlying arrest (a firearm charge) justified the search. The application of the exclusionary rule in this situation, the court concluded, was "especially appropriate."

Judge Diaz dissented, arguing that the majority relies on the use of the knife alone to sink the search, which does not in and of itself render the search unreasonable.

Congrats to the FPD office in Maryland on the win!

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