Strip Searches in Pennsylvania

This blog shall review the legality of body cavity searches in light of a recent case discussing the issue. Typically employed as a result of either highway traffic investigations or specific, fact-based search warrants, the courts are approving of this search mechanism more and more.

The recent case of Commonwealth v Martinez, 2013 Pa. Super 102 (May 2013), highlights the typical fact pattern and legal issues. Martinez was identified by a confidential source “CI” as a heroin supplier to be picked up in Lancaster and transported to Chester County to deliver heroin. The CI identified the location of Martinez’ pick up, the car in which he would be traveling, and was provided the buy money to purchase the drugs from Martinez.  All of this information was attested to in an affidavit in support of a search warrant to stop and search the vehicle in which Martinez and the CI were traveling.  The state troopers handling the case executed the search warrant by initiating a specious motor vehicle traffic violation stop on the vehicle and its occupants on the PA Turnpike, in Chester County.  The car was searched, but no heroin was found. Martinez was taken back to the State Trooper barracks, where he was subdued, tazered, and forced to submit to a strip search, which revealed over 14 grams of heroin. At trial, Martinez filed a motion to suppress, which was denied. After a non-jury trial, Martinez was found guilty of Possession With Intent to Deliver and was sentenced to 5-10 years in state custody.

On appeal, Martinez contested the legality of the strip search and the factual basis supporting the warrant to search a specific person versus the place where that person may be found. In rejecting Martinez’ argument, Superior court reviewed federal and state court cases addressing legal strip searches. The court held that searching naked individuals was less of an important fact than the extent of the search techniques employed. The appellate court was more impressed with the regularity with which drug dealers secret their booty in or on their persons, thereby warranting the strip search, as compared to tazing an individual and removing his clothes with force and penetrating his body under the auspices of an approval from a magistrate to stop the drug trade. The appellate court did not consider that the entire drug transaction was set up by the government’s confidential source for the purpose of arresting Martinez, the alleged source of the drugs.

Because the state troopers in Martinez set up the drug buy, all facts in the warrant were known to them, set forth with precision in the warrant, and magically testified to with remarkable clarity and consistency at the suppression hearing. Finding that all of the facts “matched and supported” a conclusion under the totality of the circumstances, that drugs would be found in the car or the vicinity of where Martinez was sitting, even though none was found, both the trial and appellate court found sufficient probable cause existed which support both the warrant and search of Martinez’ naked body, which was in the vicinity of the place to be searched. The courts found the search, conducted in private by a trooper of similar gender, was not malicious and supported the state’s interest in securing evidence of criminal activity.

Significantly, the the trial and appellate courts sanctioned strip searches conducted with the level of invasion and penetration reasonably necessary to uncover the contraband that was alleged to be present in the search warrant. This conclusion is disturbing in that it authorizes police investigations to proceed to any level of invasiveness when an investigator says drugs will be present and claims to know such, therefore they are there, so we must search everywhere to find them. It’s the old sociological term “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Privacy interests and personal dignities give way to the overriding interest of the state to investigate, find, and prosecute all persons engage in the illegal drug trade. Call me to discuss the legality of your strip search or body cavity search.

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