A screen grab of a report from Texas station KTRK-TV in which Charnesia Corley of Spring, Texas, says she had to undergo a body-cavity search for marijuana in public during a routine traffic stop. (KTRK-TV)

Opinion: Invasive Texas police search for woman’s pot beyond wrong

Radley Balko column for The Washington Post: "The Harris County Sheriff's Department believes it's perfectly acceptable to allow a stranger to forcibly probe a woman's vagina in order to prevent her from possessing a personal-use quantity of marijuana."

Here we go again.

A Spring woman claims sheriff’s deputies violated constitutional protections by conducting a body cavity search on the concrete of a Texaco gas station parking lot during a routine traffic stop in late June.

Charneshia Corley, a 21-year-old African American, was driving in northern Harris County around 10:30 p.m. on June 21 when a male deputy pulled her over for allegedly running a stop sign. He said he smelled marijuana, handcuffed Corley, put her in his vehicle and searched her car for almost an hour. He didn’t find any pot, according to her attorney, Sam Cammack.

Returning to his car where Corley was held, the deputy again said he smelled marijuana and called in a female deputy to conduct a cavity search. When the female deputy arrived, she told Corley to pull her pants down, but Corley protested because she was cuffed and had no underwear on. The deputy ordered Corley to bend over, pulled down her pants and began to search her.

Then, according to Cammack, Corley stood up and protested, so the deputy threw her to the ground and restrained her while another female was called in to assist. When backup arrived, each deputy held one of Corley’s legs apart to conduct the probe.

Incredibly, a spokesperson for the Harris County Sheriff’s Department told a local TV station that “the deputies did everything as they should.” And so there you have it. Holding a woman down and forcibly penetrating her vagina to search for pot is official policy in Harris County.

Keep in mind that under Texas law, it takes more than four ounces of marijuana to bring a felony charge. This is what four ounces of marijuana looks like. It seems doubtful that a woman could be casually driving around with that much marijuana stuffed into her vagina. So Corley was forced to the ground, stripped, and penetrated to search for evidence that at worst would have amounted to a misdemeanor. Which means that the Harris County Sheriff’s Department believes it’s perfectly acceptable to allow a stranger to forcibly probe a woman’s vagina in order to prevent her from possessing a personal-use quantity of marijuana. And even that happened without a warrant, based only on one deputy’s claim to have smelled the drug.

This story comes two years after two women filed a lawsuit claiming they were cavity searched after being pulled over for throwing cigarette butts out of the window. That lawsuit claimed to have found evidence that such searches were “standard procedure” in the Texas Highway Patrol. In May, Reason’s Jacob Sullum found three more incidents, all involving women suspected of possessing marijuana. Publicity from those incidents prompted the Texas legislature to pass a law that’s supposed to prohibit such searches without a warrant. But that law doesn’t take effect until next month. That the state would need such a law in the first place speaks volumes.

But it isn’t just Texas. In January of last year, I noted the other places where these searches have happened:

Oakland recently paid $4.6 million to 39 men who were illegally strip searched in public. A similar lawsuit was filed in Chicago just this week. There have been other recent allegations of cavity searches in Citrus County,Florida; Coral Springs, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; and Mission, Kansas. In Milwaukee, a group of four cops spent two years subjecting women to illegal cavity searches after traffic stops. They at least have been arrested and charged.

But requiring a warrant won’t stop these incidents from happening. In some jurisdictions, a cop can get a warrant with little more than a phone call. A couple of years ago, two horrifying cases in New Mexico made national headlines. One man subjected to repeated digital anal penetration, x-rays, enemas and a colonoscopy, all without his consent. Days later, another New Mexico man came forward with a similar story. In both cases, the police obtained warrants that were approved by a judge and local prosecutor. And in both instances, the police failed to find any drugs (not that it should matter).

Last October, I also posted here about two additional incidents in which men were anally penetrated during drug searches in Tennessee. One of those searches was authorized when a drug-sniffing dog “alerted” to a $20 the man was carrying. (Gives last week’s post about the inaccuracy of drug dogs a hell of lot more urgency, doesn’t it?)

There are times when it seems like we’re moving in the direction of sanity in the drug war, at least when it comes to marijuana. These cases are a good reminder that in most of the country, things are as bad as they’ve ever been. A majority of the Americans now believe that pot should be legal. In a few states, it already is, at least under state law. A majority also believe that even harder drugs should be treated as a medical condition, not a crime. Yet the government is still waging terrifying raids on people because of pot. It’s still performing sexual assault because pot. It’s still taking children away from their parents because of pot. And it’s still killing people because of pot.

Aug. 5 report from Texas TV station KTRK:

This story was first published on WashingtonPost.com