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Minnesota Supreme Court sets limits on body cavity searches

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The Minnesota Supreme Court has limited how police can perform body cavity searches after ruling in a case of a suspect in an illegal drug investigation who refused to cooperate with officers.

In August 2015, Minneapolis police investigating crack dealers worked with a confidential informant and set up a controlled buy of drugs from Guntallwon Brown and soon arrested him.

That’s when, according to court records, officers saw Brown squirming in this chair and putting his hands in his pants.

The officer believed Brown had hidden a bag of crack, so police went to a judge and got a warrant for a body cavity search.

At North Memorial Hospital, emergency room physician Dr. Christopher Palmer refused to remove the baggie. Palmer offered Brown a laxative, but the doctor declined a request from police to force Brown to take it.

All along, Brown refused to remove the drugs.

Police went back to the judge and got another warrant that directed hospital staff to “use any medical/physical means necessary” to retrieve the narcotics.

Police then took Brown to Hennepin Healthcare where staff strapped him down and sedated him. As two officers watched, Dr. Paul Nystrom used a speculum and forceps to extract a baggie containing 2.9 grams of cocaine.

The evidence led a jury to convict Brown of fifth-degree drug possession. A judge sentenced him to three years probation and 90 days home detention.

In a 5-1 ruling Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the 30-year-old’s conviction and sent it back to district court. In the majority opinion, Justice Paul Thissen wrote "If a coerced invasion of one’s anal cavity — an area inherently personal and private — while sedated and in front of strangers is not a serious and substantial intrusion of an individual’s dignitary interest in personal privacy and bodily integrity, we cannot fathom what is."

Thissen cited a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1985 in which the justices ruled that police may not force a suspect to undergo surgery to retrieve evidence — in that case a bullet fired at a suspect by his intended robbery victim.

Mary Moriarty
Mary Moriarty, Hennepin County's chief public defender
Jennifer Simonson for APM Reports

Hennepin County’s chief public defender, Mary Moriarty, said physicians should not be performing procedures in service of law enforcement.

“Think about what happened here: Forcing somebody to be sedated, to have an IV stuck in their arm and have a speculum put up their rectum while these two police officers are in the room is a pretty big invasion of one’s privacy.”

The only dissenter, Justice Anne McKeig said "the intrusion would have been less if Brown had cooperated."

McKeig goes on to say that the sedation was done for Brown’s comfort, and that the anoscopy that Dr. Nystrom performed is a low-risk, uncomplicated procedure. Medical staff did not observe any bleeding or abrasions.

Hennepin Healthcare did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman says police did everything right. They got a warrant and took Brown to a doctor. But “it is the Supreme Court’s role to set judicial policy.”

Freeman said he has 90 days to decide whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. If prosecutors don’t file an appeal, Freeman said he’ll dismiss the case against Brown.