Minnesota Supreme Court Rules that a Forced Cavity Search is Unconstitutional

The Minnesota Judicial Center in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota, houses the Minnesota Supreme Court, Minnesota Court of Appeals, and the Minnesota State Law Library. It is run by the Minnesota Judicial Branch and is next to the State Capitol.

On Wednesday, August 16, 2019, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned a drug possession conviction for a Minneapolis man who was forced to undergo a body cavity search.

According to the ruling, this search violated his constitutional rights to dignity, privacy, and bodily integrity.

Police searched Guntallwon Brown’s rectum as he was strapped down and sedated, which judges ruled as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Justice Paul Thissen and four colleagues ruled in a 21-page opinion that this move was unconstitutional. Only Justice Anne McKeig dissented, declaring that the search was reasonable.

In early 2017, the Hennepin County District Court jury convicted Brown of fifth-degree drug possession. He received a sentence of 90 days of home confinement and was ordered to take a drug test. Brown later appealed the decision.

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The Appeals Court declared that the search was reasonable, but the state Supreme Court had a different opinion and ruled that illegal search’s evidence was inadmissible at trial. The high court then ordered for Brown to receive a new trial.

Ultimately, the court believed that this body search was a clear violation of personal privacy and bodily integrity.

The court wrote, “If a coerced invasion of one’s [body] cavity — an area inherently personal and private — while sedated and in front of strangers is not a serious and substantial intrusion of an individual’s dignitary interest in personal privacy and bodily integrity, we cannot fathom what is.”

Brown was arrested for a crack cocaine sale, but when law enforcement officers saw a bag protruding from Brown’s body, they went to get a warrant for a cavity search.

After much struggle, Brown was eventually “strapped down and placed on an intravenous sedative” in order for police to obtain the baggie.

During this case, the Supreme Court emphasized that Brown was alert and able to give consent but was ultimately strapped to a table and sedated as doctors carried out the procedure.

The court argued that there was a more practical, noninvasive alternative to retrieving the bag: acquiring it through natural elimination.

This case is a big victory for civil liberties in Minnesota. The drug war has opened up a whole host of civil liberties violations that were never envisioned by its original proponents. As more states start legalizing and decriminalizing drugs, less of these situations will have to occur.

Drugs are obviously not harmless. However, civil society and education measures in the private sector used to deal with these problems are preferable alternatives to heavy-handed state measures which generally result in the deprivation of basic civil liberties.