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Have a Cell Phone in Your Rectum? Body Cavity Searches OK’d in First Circuit, but Surgical Searches Are Not

It is okay to look for contraband in a prisoner’s rectum so long as the search is done by medical staff in a non-abusive manner, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Prison officials, however, cannot force prisoners to undergo surgery in order to search for prohibited items.

While incarcerated at Puerto Rico’s Bayamon 501 prison, Angel Luis Sanchez was subjected to a series of increasingly intrusive searches as part of a quest to find a cell phone that guards thought he had hidden inside his body.

The incident began after a handheld metal detector went off while Sanchez was being searched. A subsequent strip-search revealed nothing, as did another scan with the metal detector, but that was not good enough for the guards.

They asked a doctor to take X-rays of Sanchez’s abdominal cavity. While the results from the X-rays were pending, Sanchez was placed under constant surveillance and guards instructed him to defecate on the floor. Sanchez did so, but no cell phone was found.

Shortly thereafter the results from the X-rays came in. According to the doctor who examined the X-rays, Sanchez had a foreign object in his rectum that looked like a cell phone. Sanchez denied having a cell phone and again defecated in front of the guards. Although no cell phone came out, the guards were not satisfied.

Sanchez was taken to an emergency room where a rectal exam was performed by a doctor in order to recover the elusive cell phone. The first search of Sanchez’s rectum came up empty. A second digital examination revealed no cell phone, either. However, the guards and medical staff still were not convinced.

Next, doctors scheduled Sanchez for exploratory surgery of his abdominal cavity. Prior to the surgery, another X-ray was taken which revealed no foreign objects in Sanchez’s body. Nevertheless, the surgery went forward after the surgeon coerced Sanchez to consent by promising to do another rectal exam while Sanchez was under anesthesia in lieu of performing surgery.

But another rectal exam did not occur; instead, the surgeon performed the exploratory surgery anyway. No cell phone was discovered. Sanchez was discharged from the hospital and returned to the Bayamon prison two days later.

Sanchez then sued the guards and medical staff, claiming Fourth Amendment violations. The district court dismissed Sanchez’s lawsuit for failure to state a claim. Sanchez appealed, and the First Circuit reversed in part.

Although the Fourth Amendment applied to the searches, the Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s dismissal of Sanchez’s claims related to the digital rectal exams. While rectal examinations may be “highly intrusive and humiliating,” they are not necessarily prohibited, the appellate court held. Rather, the touchstone of whether such searches violate the Fourth Amendment is if they are “reasonable.”

In Sanchez’s case, the Court of Appeals found that the digital rectal exams were reasonable because they were “carried out by medical professionals in the relatively private, sanitary environment of a hospital, upon suspicion that plaintiff had contraband in his rectum, and with no abusive or humiliating conduct on the part of the law enforcement officers or the doctors.”

The surgery conducted on Sanchez’s abdominal cavity, however, stepped over the line. “The surgery described in the complaint was ... an unreasonable, unconstitutional search,” the First Circuit wrote, given “several indications of the absence of contraband, including the results of two monitored bowel movements and two rectal examinations.” “Society is prepared to recognize that a prisoner has a reasonable expectation that he will not be forced to undergo abdominal surgery for the purposes of finding contraband, at least in these circumstances,” the appellate court held. The judgment of the district court was accordingly affirmed in part and reversed in part. See: Sanchez v. Pereira-Castillo, 590 F.3d 31 (1st Cir. 2009).

Following remand, the case settled in January 2011 under undisclosed terms.

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Related legal case

Sanchez v. Pereira- Castillo