“Reach-in” Strip Searches OK in Maryland if Reasonable

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled last month that “reach-in” strip searches by the police were not a violation of a suspect’s rights, if the searches were reasonable in scope, manner, and place, and the initiation of the search was justified. The holding permitted the introduction of evidence of the defendants’ drug possession, which had been obtained when the police reached into the defendants’ boxers on a public street and removed baggies containing drugs from the defendants’ buttocks.

The nature of a police search of an individual’s body by necessity involves questions of privacy and an individual’s Constitutional rights. When these rights are implicated, the services of an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney is vital to ensuring that those rights are protected.

The Court cited a holding by the United States Supreme Court, which set out four reasonableness factors for consideration, as the standard for determining whether a strip search incident to arrest violated the Fourth Amendment:

The test of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application. In each case it requires a balancing of the need for the particular search against the invasion of personal rights that the search entails. Courts must consider the scope of the particular intrusion, the manner in which it is conducted, the justification for initiating it, and the place in which it is conducted.

Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 559 (1979).

The Court concluded with regard for the justification factor that “when a person is arrested for drug dealing, the nature of the offense provides reasonable suspicion to believe that the arrestee is concealing drugs on his or her person.” The manner of the search was reasonable because the police merely pulled the defendants’ boxers away from their bodies, rather than fully exposing the “private areas” of the defendants’ bodies to the public. For the same reason, the scope of the search was reasonable. The location was reasonable, because, despite being on a public street, there were no civilians present at the time of the search who could observe what was going on.

In practice, the police are frequently given a lot of leeway in their determinations of what is “reasonable,” and arguing to suppress evidence based on the unreasonableness of a search is often an uphill battle for a criminal defendant. The evaluation and presentation of each of these four factors by an attorney that is experienced in representing criminal defendants in Maryland criminal courts can be the difference between winning and losing a case.