Irving, TX — It’s late at night. You are driving down a dimly lit road. Suddenly, in your rear view mirror, those familiar flashing lights appear. You are pulled over as one of the nearly 18 million Americans involved in traffic stops annually. Your encounter leads to a search. Should anything be off limits? Should certain clothing not be breached? Should certain body parts be protected from inspection by a complete stranger — a police badge, notwithstanding?
Ladies, how would you feel if a routine traffic stop turned into hands exploring your breasts, anal area, and vaginal region? How would you feel if the person searched were your mother or daughter? Fellas, what if the person were your wife or significant other?
This is exactly what happened to two Texas women — Angel Dobbs (38) and her niece, Ashley Dobbs (24) — during a traffic stop that occurred along State Highway 161 outside of Irving, TX. State Trooper David Farrell initiated the stop after seeing one of occupants fling a cigarette butt from their car. Farrell, later reporting the event, stated the women were “acting weird” during the brief encounter. The trooper’s search of the car failed to produce any illegal substances. Farrell then called for a female colleague, Kelley Helleson, for assistance. Upon her arrival, Helleson used rubber gloves to execute a highly invasive search of both women’s private areas in open view of other cars traveling along the stretch.
The scene was captured on video from Farrell’s cruiser.
The Dobbs women have filed a lawsuit in federal court against Farrell and Helleson, alleging the roadside body cavity search constituted sexual assault. The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office of Public Integrity is investigating the incident, with a grand jury hearing scheduled for January. According to Tony Vinger, spokesperson for The Texas Department of Public Safety, Helleson has been suspended with pay, pending the outcome of the investigation.
Some might consider the incident as an anomaly and something about which they should not be concerned. However, the disturbing reality is similar incidents have occurred in cities and towns across the country. On June 25, 2012, John Norman, then an officer in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, pleaded guilty of oppression under the color of office and open or gross lewdness. Norman was facing charges of stopping female motorists and coercing them to expose their breasts.
- The two Dobbs women assert that Officer Helleson used the same gloves during both searches.
- According to Dallas Morning News, a failure to find drugs evolved into a DWI investigation.
- Angel Dobbs revealed emotional trauma, sense of violation, and that Helleson’s search of her anal area caused painful irritation of an pre-existing cyst.
- Steven McCraw, Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, is also named in the lawsuit for failure to respond to previous “unlawful strip searches, cavity searches and the like”.
The very “acting weird” premise in the Farrell/Helleson case has been rejected when it comes to car searches. The Massachusetts Court of Appeals, in Commonwealth v. Johnson, held:
… that officers can only conduct a “protective sweep” of a vehicle when there is a reasonable fear that the safety of others might be in jeopardy. As part of that standard, officers must have specific information that indicates there might be a weapon in the car. The mere fact that a driver or passenger seems anxious is not enough. Similarly, the fact that the driver had an outstanding warrant was not sufficient, since the warrant was for a nonviolent motor vehicle offense and there was nothing to suggest that either the driver or the passenger had any history of violence or weapons possession.
The Johnson case arose out of a routine traffic stop that occurred in Boston’s high-crime area of Roxbury. A Massachusetts state trooper in an unmarked car and two Boston police officers noticed a car that passed through a red light, subsequently making an illegal right turn. During the traffic stop, officers noticed that while the driver did not hide his hands, he was making nervous gestures. Rubbing his thighs. Hands shaking. Fumbling his license. A records query revealed the driver’s outstanding warrant connected to a previous traffic violation.
Both driver and passenger were instructed to step out of the car. They were searched because of the nervous behavior. And the car search produced an illegal gun wrapped in a sock located on the backseat. The driver was convicted of illegal possession of a firearm. Nevertheless, the Court found the driver’s constitutional rights were violated and reversed convictions.
It would seem reasonable that privacy concerns that involve cars should extend to one’s body.
The courts will have their say. This gives you, the citizen, an opportunity.
The Irving incident could have been worse. And that is the potential danger of invasive body cavity searches. Namely:
- What is the likelihood that a man would sit in a car, text messaging or listening to music, while an officer is searching the vaginal area or breasts of his mother or wife or daughter in plain view of passing cars?
- Can you imagine a similar stop that involves an inter-racial couple, driving through some small/rural town where, let’s say, relationship “streusel” is not a popular dessert?
- How does a parent explain to a child why a police officer’s hands were roaming areas that the child has learned are off-limits?
- What if the person being searched had suffered rape or molestation? What reaction might an invasive body search trigger?
What do you think? Should officers be allowed to search your private areas during traffic stops? In broad view of other motorists and pedestrians? And reasons as subjective as “acting weird?
Let’s talk about it.
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