Fourth Circuit Overturns Conviction Because Officer Used A Knife to Remove the Crack Tied Around An Arrestee’s Private Parts

Kevin Walsh flags a very unusual Fourth Amendment case out of the Fourth Circuit that reaches a rather surprising holding: The police violate the Fourth Amendment, justifying suppression of the evidence, when the police use a knife to remove drugs tied around a suspect’s private parts during a search incident to arrest. The case is United States v. Edwards.

First, the facts. For fans of The Wire cue the music — the case occurred in Baltimore in the Northern District. The police obtained a search warrant for a known drug dealer, Joseph Edwards, who was quite familiar to the officers. Edwards had earlier illegally brandished a weapon in front of two women. The police knew the neighborhoods where Edwards hung out, so they went there at night and saw him and placed him under arrest based on the authority of the warrant. Before putting Edwards in the police van to be transported to the station, the officers decided to check his crotch for guns or drugs. One of the officers testified that this was a common practice: ” You know, it’s unpleasant for everybody involved. But if you have reason to believe that there might be something, then it’s a good idea to check, because often they do hide things down there.”

Four male officers surrounded Edwards. One officer loosened Edwards’s belt and stretched his pants and underwear out about six inches away from his body, and the officers directed a flashlight to see if anything unusual was there. As it turned out, there was indeed something unusual: Edwards had a clear plastic sandwich bag containing 43 smaller baggies of crack all wrapped around his penis. One of the officers put on gloves, took a knife he had with him, and cut the sandwich bag off. Edwards was unharmed, and the discovery of the crack led to crack possession charges.

In today’s opinion, a divided Fourth Circuit rules that the crack must be suppressed. Using the knife to remove the baggie was constitutionally unreasonable because Edwards could have gotten hurt, the court rules, even thought he wasn’t:

We conclude that Bailey’s use of a knife in cutting the sandwich baggie off Edwards’ penis posed a significant and an unnecessary risk of injury to Edwards, transgressing well-settled standards of reasonableness. The fortuity that Edwards was not injured in the course of this action does not substantiate its safety. The district court found that the entire search took place at “approximately 11:30 [at night], in a dark area.” While the officers used a flashlight when searching inside Edwards’ underwear, they did not continue to use the flash- light when Bailey removed the baggie containing the susected drugs with his knife.

The government contends that because Bailey knew that Edwards was being arrested for a handgun violation, the search inside Edwards’ underwear was reasonable to ensure that the police had not missed finding a weapon during the earlier pat-down search. . . . .[A]ssuming, without deciding, that the government’s rationale supports the reasonableness of the decision to search inside Edwards’ underwear, this rationale does not justify the dangerous manner in which the contraband was retrieved from his genital area once the contraband was discovered. In fact, the government provides no reason whatsoever why the concealed contraband, once the police had determined that it clearly was not a handgun, could not have been removed under circumstances less dangerous to Edwards.

We do not suggest that after discovering contraband concealed under a suspect’s clothing, officers are required to permit the suspect to remove the contraband. . . . [I]n the present case, there were several alternatives available to the officers for removing the baggie from Edwards’ penis, which neither would have compromised the officers’ safety nor the safety of Edwards. These alternatives included untying the baggie, removing it by hand, tearing the baggie, requesting that blunt scissors be brought to the scene to remove the baggie, or removing the baggie by other non-dangerous means in any private, well-lit area. Thus, we conclude that, in the absence of exigent circumstances, the right of the police to seize contraband from inside Edwards’ underwear did not give the officers license to employ a method creating a significant and unnecessary risk of injury.

I’m not persuaded. The officers had arrested Edwards pursuant to a valid warrant, and they were conducting a search incident to arrest. Under United States v. Robinson, that allows a full search of the person, which I would think would include checking out whether a suspect has hidden drugs or a gun on their body. The court uses the Bell v. Wolfish framework to determine whether the search of Edwards was reasonable, but that seems like the wrong doctrinal box: While Bell is the framework for searches for drugs and guns on the person once arrestees arrive at the jail, here the controversial step was using the knife to remove the drugs. Using the knife wasn’t a search at all: It was a means used to seize drugs that had been found in plain view during a search incident to arrest. It could be litigated as an excessive force civil claim, but I don’t think it implicates the constitutionality of the search that preceded it or triggers Bell.

Even if you accept that Bell‘s framework applies, I’m not aware of a precedent that supports such micromanaging of the details of a search. The court’s opinion announces that the police can use “blunt scissors” to remove a baggie of crack from around an arrestee’s penis, but the United States Constitution prohibits using a “knife” to do it — apparently because the latter poses unnecessary risks while the former does not. While most of us can recognize and appreciate the Court’s concerns, I don’t think that a suspect’s decision to tie a bag of crack around his johnson triggers such heightened scrutiny of the means of removal when the cops arrest him on a warrant and search him incident to arrest. That’s all the more true because Edwards wasn’t actually injured when the officers removed the bag.