In a case that illustrates the fine line between standard police procedure and sexual assault, a Tennessee woman says a state trooper pulled her over twice within a few hours and groped her for no apparent reason. Although the trooper's boss cleared him of any wrongdoing, the local district attorney says the traffic stops were inconsistent with the Tennessee Highway Patrol's training and rules.
According to a lawsuit filed by Patricia Aileen Wilson, State Trooper Isaiah Lloyd stopped her on August 16 as she was driving with her mother on Interstate 75 in Campbell County, ostensibly because she was not wearing a seat belt. In dashcam video obtained by the Knoxville News Sentinel, Lloyd asks Wilson whether she has taken "any presciption medication or anything." She replies, firmly and calmly, "No, I swear to God. No, I can tell you now. No drugs, no alcohol, nothing." He instructs her to get out of her pickup truck and put her hands on the hood of his cruiser.
Wilson is wearing shorts and a T-shirt over a camisole. Lloyd sticks his hand inside her shorts and feels around (touching her buttocks and pubic area, according to the lawsuit). He asks her if she has any drugs hidden in her bra; she says no and, per his instructions, pulls her T-shirt away from her body and shakes her chest to confirm that there is no contraband there. Lloyd conducts a few roadside sobriety tests. He tells Wilson to track his finger with her eyes as he moves it back and forth, then up and down. Later he has her walk toe to heel in a line and stand on one foot while counting to 30. She seems completely sober.
Lloyd asks Wilson again about prescription medication. "The only thing I take, and that's at night, is…what's the name of it? To help me sleep." Lloyd suggests the drug is Ambien. Wilson says she generally takes the sedative "every other night, but I don't take any kind of narcotic or anything else." Lloyd tells her, "Ambien's a narcotic" (which it is, loosely speaking, although it is not an opioid). After giving Wilson a citation for failing to wear a seat belt, Lloyd lets her go.
Three hours later, Lloyd, who has copied Wilson's address from her driver's license while writing her ticket, pulls her over on a county road near her home while she is driving with her children, ages 8 and 3, in the back seat. This time Lloyd's justification is that the tint on her truck's windows is too dark, although it is no darker now than it was earlier in the day. Audio of the four-minute conversation between Lloyd and Wilson during the second stop is missing from the dashcam video (a failure that Lloyd attributes to a microphone malfunction). But according to Wilson's lawsuit, Lloyd told her, "We have to stop meeting like this." Despite Lloyd's supposed concern that Wilson's tinted windows posed an intolerable threat to public safety, he did not issue her a ticket.
Last month Col. Tracy Trott, head of the Tennessee Highway Patrol, issued a statement in response to Wilson's complaint about Lloyd's treatment of her. "The Command Staff, including females Major Cheryl Sanders and Lt. Stacey Heatherly, reviewed the traffic stop video cautiously and carefully several times to determine if Trooper Lloyd had acted inappropriately with Ms. Wilson," Trott said. "Along with the Command Staff, I concurred after thorough review of the video that Trooper Lloyd did not act inappropriately with Ms. Wilson. It appears that Trooper Lloyd conducted a search for contraband instead of a pat down for weapons. The technique that Trooper Lloyd used during the traffic stop will be addressed internally."
Eighth Judicial District Attorney General Jared Effler, whose jurisdiction includes Campbell County, sees things differently. Although there is not enough evidence to charge Lloyd with sexual battery, Effler said last week, "our review of this matter revealed that Trooper Lloyd's actions were inconsistent with his training and Tennessee Department of Safety general orders." He said he had shared his findings with Commissioner of Safety and Homeland Security David Purkey, asking that they "be reviewed with Trooper Lloyd to prevent similar incidents in the future." Effler added that he had dropped the seat belt citation against Wilson.
[Update: On Tuesday a department spokesman told the Knoxville News Sentinel Lloyd was will receive remedial training in proper search procedures. "We saw no criminal intent on the video," the spokesman said. "He's been orally counseled on his search techniques." According to Tennessee Highway Patrol records obtained by the newspaper, "it is not part of [the] training curriculum to go inside the waistband during a pat down."]
"How is it OK to say, 'I think you're on drugs,' and just stick your hands down my pants?" Wilson asked in an interview with the New Sentinel. It's not.
Lloyd claimed through a lawyer, James A.H. Bell, that he patted down Wilson because she told him she had a prescription for Ambien, which hardly makes sense as a reason to suspect she was hiding illegal drugs in her underwear. In any case, the dashcam video shows that the discussion of Ambien came after the search, not before it. Furthermore, although Bell said Lloyd performed "a traditional stop and frisk," his pat-down of Wilson did not meet the legal requirements for such a search.
In the 1968 case Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court said the Fourth Amendment allows a police officer to stop someone he reasonably suspects is engaged in criminal activity and frisk him if he reasonably suspects the person is armed and dangerous. Terry did not authorize pat-downs for drugs (although contraband discovered in the course of a pat-down can be seized and used as evidence against the suspect), and it did not authorize searches under clothing. Since Lloyd does not claim he believed Wilson was armed and dangerous, it is hard to see how his search of her can be legal.
The Supreme Court nevertheless has encouraged this sort of behavior by approving pretextual traffic stops based on trivial violations and humiliating invasions of privacy aimed at discovering arbitrarily proscribed intoxicants. State legislators, meanwhile, have multiplied the possibilities for harassing innocent motorists through laws like the ones that allowed Lloyd to stop Wilson because she did not buckle her seat belt and then because the windows of her truck were tinted. Together these factors mean that women will continue to suffer degrading searches-cum-assaults at the hands of dedicated public servants like Isaiah Lloyd.