Trooper Suspended after Shocking Roadside Cavity Search
A Texas state trooper is suspended with pay and will face a grand jury next month for conducting a body cavity search of two women on the side of a highway near Irving, Texas, in full view of passing traffic and a male trooper.
Angel Dobbs and her niece Ashley Dobbs filed a lawsuit after trooper Kelley Helleson used her fingers to search the women’s vaginas and anuses without asking for consent or explaining that the search was about to take place. Video captured by trooper David Farrell’s dashboard camera showed that Helleson searched both women using the same rubber glove.
Warning: the video below contains graphic content which some viewers may find disturbing.
The search took place after Farrell pulled the women over for allegedly throwing cigarette butts out of the windows. After questioning them about the littering, Farrell changed the subject to marijuana, which he said he could smell inside the vehicle. Both women denied possessing marijuana, but Farrell had already radioed for Helleson to assist with the search. When Helleson arrived, Farrell told her the women were “acting weird.”
While Helleson conducted the cavity search nearby, Farrell searched the vehicle without seeking consent. Neither trooper found any marijuana, but Farrell still administered a roadside sobriety test to Angel Dobbs, the driver. Dobbs passed the test, and both women were given warnings for littering and allowed to leave.
Exceptions to the Rule
Attorney Norm Pattis calls the search “a chilling reminder of all we’ve lost from the Fourth Amendment.”
“While immunities have made it increasingly possible for police officers to escape liability for violating our rights, this suit should survive any legal challenge,” Pattis said. “The founders ought to be rolling in their graves over this outrage.”
Though the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and requires warrants to be supported by probable cause, courts have carved out numerous exceptions over the years. A notable exception came from the Supreme Court in April, when it ruled that corrections officers can strip-search someone arrested for any offense, no matter how minor, before admitting them to a jail.
“The Supreme Court held that the penological needs of the prison outweighed individuals’ right to the privacy of their own bodies,” Pattis said.
But Pattis added that the Texas Department of Public Safety will have a hard time finding an exception to the Fourth Amendment that justifies Helleson’s search.
“If these troopers thought something could dissolve in her body, either disappearing as evidence or posing a threat to the woman herself, they could argue for an exception of exigent circumstances,” Pattis said. “But that would be extremely cynical. I’m not sure what could save this for the troopers. Cavity searches are extremely intrusive. There has to be a good reason for them.”
Possible Pattern of Violations
Steve McCraw, Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, is named in the suit alongside Helleson and Farrell. The suit alleges that McCraw “had actual notice of previous problems and complaints concerning a long standing pattern of police misconduct involving unlawful strip searches, cavity searches and the like, yet failed to take corrective action.”
But unless the Dobbs’ attorney can establish a solid connection between McCraw and the roadside search, he’s unlikely to share liability with his troopers.
“Under the Federal Civil Rights Act, there’s no vicarious responsibility,” Pattis said. “You have to prove direct culpability. If the attorney can find that specific misconduct was condoned or that [McCraw] was unwilling to train his subordinates properly, then theoretically he could be held liable.”
‘I Felt Helpless’
Ashley Dobbs said she felt “helpless” as she was searched, but it was more than just a feeling. While anyone is free to state objections to the police, no one has the right to disobey a police officer or resist arrest.
“You have to comply even with an unlawful command,” Pattis said. “You don’t have a right to resort to self-help.”
Pattis said that the best a person can typically hope for to stop an unlawful search is an opportunity to safely call 911 and ask for a supervisor to be sent to the scene.
What do you think about the conduct of these Texas troopers? Have you ever been subject to an unlawful search? Let us know in the comments section below.