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X-Ray Anal Cavity Search Doesn't Violate Fourth Amendment Rights

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

What lawyer can resist an anal cavity search? A cavity search case, that is.

This week, the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in a civil rights claim against Worcester police officers, finding that a suspect's Fourth Amendment rights are not violated when the government uses technology to conduct an anal cavity search.

Worcester police officers arrested Shane Spencer in 2005 for operating a motor vehicle without a license. One of the officers, Gary Morris, learned that a confidential informant (CI) claimed to have seen Spencer insert a package of crack cocaine into his anal cavity just prior to the arrest. The CI had been reliable in the past, so Morris asked the Spencer to submit to a visual inspection of his anus.

When Spencer refused, Morris and a fellow officer, Stephen Roche, nonetheless attempted to conduct the visual inspection. Their efforts were thwarted because Spencer, again, refused to cooperate.

(Sidebar: We're curious to know how an attempted visual inspection without a Spencer's consent worked logistically - and how the search was foiled - but we think the mental images will plague us longer than the curiosity.)

The officers obtained a search warrant and transported Spencer to a hospital so medical professionals could do the dirty work. A doctor performed a physical search of Spencer's rectum, followed by a KUB x-ray, which also captured images of the stomach, kidneys, and other organs.

There were no foreign objects in Spencer's scanned area.

Shortly thereafter, Spencer brought a civil rights claim against Roche and Morris, claiming that the physical and x-ray searches violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants, and the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

Spencer argued that x-ray was an unreasonable intrusion on his privacy and that the police compounded this intrusion by searching beyond the scope of the warrant (i.e., by searching his stomach as well as his anal cavity). The First Circuit disagreed.

Here, the court found that the x-ray search of Spencer's anal cavity passed muster because it was safe, carried out correctly, supported by probable cause, and the least intrusive way the officers could verify their suspicions.

The First Circuit similarly rejected Spencer's claims that the x-ray was unnecessary after the physical search came up empty, ruling that a negative result in the physical search did not dispel the possibility that Spencer might be hiding drugs in his body. Finally, the court found that, while the x-ray search of Spencer's abdomen exceeded the scope of the warrant, "the viewing of the stomach was incidental to the valid anal cavity search ... and did not require an independent showing of probable cause."

In light of the First Circuit Court Appeals' reasoning in this case, we think the physical anal cavity search is the greater offense to privacy; if a negative physical search result doesn't dispel the possibility that a suspect is hiding drugs, shouldn't the government skip the physical search and proceed directly to the x-ray?

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