Civil Liberties

Texas Legislators Vote to Ban Roadside Sexual Assaults by Police

A bill passed by the state House requires warrants for body cavity searches of motorists.


Texas Department of Public Safety

This week the Texas House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill that requires police to obtain search warrants before probing the anuses or vaginas of drivers or passengers during traffic stops. How often does that sort of thing happen in Texas? More often than you might think.

On Memorial Day in 2012, for instance, Alexandria Randle and Brandy Hamilton were driving home to Houston from Surfside Beach when they were pulled over for speeding on Highway 288 in Brazoria County. Claiming to smell marijuana, Trooper Nathaniel Turner ordered the women out of the car. After he found a small amount of pot in the car, Turner called a female trooper, Jennie Bui, and asked her to perform a body cavity search on both women. "If you hid something in there, we are going to find it," Bui says on the dashcam video of the traffic stop. It turned out there was nothing to find. The stop ended with a ticket for possession of drug paraphernalia.

"It was extremely humiliating, especially with my entire family, including my 8-year-old nieces and my nephew …in the back of the car," Randle told HLN. "They saw all of this happening, as well as everybody on the side of the road….I have a whole different feeling when I see police officers now….It's a very touchy thing dealing with them."

Randle and Hamilton sued the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) over the incident. Initially both troopers were dismissed, but Bui was reinstated. "It was determined that the relatively inexperienced trooper was directed by a more senior trooper to conduct the inappropriate search," DPS Director Steve McCraw explained.

Randle and Hamilton's ordeal was not unique. The same month they filed their lawsuit, DPS settled a case brought by two other women, Angel Dobbs and her niece Ashley Dobbs, who were stopped for tossing cigarette butts from their car on Highway 161 near Irving in July 2012. Trooper David Farrell claimed to smell marijuana coming from their car and called in a female trooper, Kelley Helleson, to poke around in their private parts. According to the lawsuit, Helleson conducted these "painful, humiliating, and shamefully embarrassing" body cavity searches "on the side of a public freeway illuminated by lights from the police vehicle in full view of the passing public."

Like Randle and Hamilton, Angel and Ashley Dobbs said the trooper who searched them did not bother to change gloves between assaults. No drugs were found. The women got $185,000 for their trouble.

In this case, which Rachel Moran, Brian Doherty, and Mike Riggs covered here in 2012 and 2013, the trooper who conducted the search was fired, while the trooper who arranged it was suspended. Helleson was charged with two counts of sexual assault, while Farrell was charged with theft for allegedly stealing a bottle of hydrocodone. Last year Helleson pleaded guilty to two counts of official repression and received two years of probation, plus a $2,000 fine. According to the New York Daily News, "Helleson apologized in court, saying she was only doing what she was trained to do." A grand jury declined to indict Farrell on the theft charge, and he is "back on active duty," keeping Texas highways safe.

Wait, there's more. In yet another strikingly similar incident, Houston resident Jennifer Stelly says she and her boyfriend were pulled over for speeding in Brazoria County on the way to Surfside Beach in March 2013. The troopers claimed to smell pot, found a little in her purse, and decided a body cavity search was a good idea. "I was on my cycle," Telly told the Fox station in Houston last December, "so she could not penetrate the vaginal area but she went to the anal area, and she penetrated and put her finger inside, and I just felt violated." Stelly is suing DPS too.

According to DPS, searches like these are contrary to department policy, but apparently not all troopers got the memo. So you can begin to understand the motivation behind the bill approved this week, which was sponsored by Rep. Harold Dutton Jr. (D-Houston) and still needs approval from the state Senate. Dutton's bill says "a peace officer may not conduct a body cavity search of a person during a traffic stop unless the officer first obtains a search warrant pursuant to this chapter authorizing the body cavity search."

A similar bill, introduced last month by Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock), would go further, requiring a warrant for a body cavity search of any "person arrested or detained during the investigation of a criminal offense." Burrows' bill also includes a provision stating that "a person who is not arrested and charged with an offense arising out of evidence obtained incident to a body cavity search shall not be held responsible for medical expenses incident to the body cavity search." And sadly, that is not a fanciful concern either.

Update: The latest version of Burrows' bill applies to anyone detained (but not arrested) by the police; requires that body cavity searches be conducted "in a private, sanitary place…in accordance with medically recognized, hygienic practices"; forces law enforcement agencies to pay medical costs associated with searches regardless of the results; and makes any evidence obtained in violation of the new requirements inadmissible in court.