Fourth Amendment

Federal Judge Rules Forced Catheterization by South Dakota Police Violates Fourth Amendment

Suspected low-level drug crimes don't "justify subjecting the plaintiffs to involuntary catheterization, a highly invasive—and in these cases—degrading medical procedure."


A federal judge ruled Wednesday that South Dakota law enforcement's practice of involuntary catheterizations to obtain urine samples from suspected drug users violated the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable searches.

Chief Judge Roberto Lange of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota ruled that a civil rights lawsuit by six plaintiffs who allege they were forcibly catheterized can proceed to trial on Fourth Amendment grounds. Lange found that the mere suspicion of low-level drug crimes did not appear to justify the invasive, potentially dangerous, and painful procedures.

The suit named three South Dakota cities, several police officers from those towns, and a South Dakota Highway Patrol trooper as defendants.

"Defendants' need to obtain the plaintiffs' urine to prove a low-level drug crime did not justify subjecting the plaintiffs to involuntary catheterization, a highly invasive—and in these cases—degrading medical procedure," Lange wrote.

Under South Dakota law, ingesting drugs is a crime. The plaintiffs allege that they were held down and subjected to involuntary catheterization after police obtained search warrants for urine samples to detect the presence of drugs. But in the cases of two of the plaintiffs, Gena Alvarez and Aaron Peters, they were not arrested for suspected drug crimes at all.

Lange's ruling, and the facts behind the case, are worth quoting at length:

Consider Alvarez's case. The law enforcement need for Alvarez's urine was not so great that it was reasonable for a male officer to hold down her bare leg, as a nurse ran a tube up her urethra and into her bladder, as Alvarez lay naked from the waist down screaming, even though she had told all present about having been sexually assaulted and was visibly distraught. Indeed, by the time of the forcible catheterization of Alvarez, law enforcement already had evidence of her driving under the influence of alcohol, so law enforcement's purpose in her involuntary catheterization was merely to see if evidence of some other charge of ingestion—in her case of marijuana—might also be brought. There is no community interest in involuntarily catheterizing an emotionally distraught woman with a history of having been raped just to see if evidence exists to tack a drug ingestion charge onto an ironclad case of driving under the influence of alcohol. Peters's case also illustrates the point. Peters was arrested on a bench warrant for failing to pay a court-ordered financial obligation after having been seen outside an apartment complex. The point of catheterizing Peters was to see if he could be charged with a drug-ingestion offense. A video shows Peters being catheterized with four officers holding him down and with his feet twitching as he screams in pain repeatedly.

Lange concluded that "forcing the Plaintiffs to undergo catheterization was unreasonable given the extreme intrusion on the Plaintiffs' dignitary interests, the nature of the suspected crime, and the availability of less intrusive means to collect evidence of guilt."

However, Lange did grant qualified immunity to the law enforcement officers named in the suit, shielding them from liability.

The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota following a 2017 investigation by the Argus Leader, which found that even children had been subject to forced catheterization—one as young as 3 years old.

The ACLU of South Dakota filed a second lawsuit on behalf of the child. It alleged that his mother was coerced by state social services officials into giving consent for her son to be catheterized to test his urine for drugs. As a result, the lawsuit claims, the boy suffered emotional trauma and developed a staph infection.