We were talking about a recent decision handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit. The case does not involve North Carolina directly, but the issue — the constitutionality of using an X-ray for a cavity search — is important to criminal defendants across the country. The appellant in this case is also considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which does involve the state.
The plaintiff sued the city, two officers and the hospital after having his abdomen X-rayed based on a warrant for an anal cavity search. He contended that the contents of his stomach were detectable on the X-ray but were not within the scope of the warrant. He claimed the defendants had violated his rights under the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and 14th Amendments. He also claimed their actions amounted to assault and battery, an invasion of privacy and other civil wrongs.
The court tackled the constitutional rights questions first, starting with the reasonableness of the search. When the invasion of a suspect’s bodily integrity is involved, the opinion said, the court must look at 1) the strength of the suspicion driving the search; 2) the potential harm to the suspect’s dignity and health posed by the search; and 3) the prosecution’s need for the evidence. The court may also take into account the availability of an alternative, less invasive means.
A U.S. Supreme Court opinion affirmed that the KUB study is an appropriate and accepted means and that the study’s inclusion of the plaintiff’s stomach was unavoidable. If the police had an ulterior motive, the court continued, the search was still lawful — an officer’s “subjective motive” cannot taint an “objectively reasonable search.”
The search itself was reasonable, then. Had the X-ray revealed any contraband in the plaintiff’s stomach, the “plain view” rule would have applied. As the court said, the rule means that an officer’s observation of an item in plain view does not constitute a search, if the officer makes this observation from a lawful vantage point. Because it is not a search, the officer does not need a warrant.
The hospital was not liable for its employees’ actions, either, the court said. Because the warrant was valid, hospital personnel properly transmitted the results of the X-ray to the police.
And, with that, the court ruled against the plaintiff. The additional charges, including assault and battery, were no longer pertinent, the court said.
Source: The National Law Journal, “Warrant for body search encompasses nonconsensual X-ray,” Sheri Qualters, Oct. 19, 2011