Drop your pants ... and your rights? 

Public Interest

Public Interest

Last June 14, at about 8 in the evening, James Campbell drove his car over to visit his friend Kimo Parham, who lived in the 3400 block of North Colorado Avenue. As Campbell, a 31-year-old transportation supervisor for Perry Township schools, exited his car, Indianapolis Police Department Officer Frank Miller confronted him. Miller pointed his gun and ordered Campbell to lie face-first on the sidewalk. 

James Campbell has filed a federal lawsuit challenging what he says is a pattern of IPD officers conducting body cavity searches in public settings.

It seems IPD officers were pursuing a fleeing suspect whose description - black male wearing a multicolored sweater and braids - bore enough of a resemblance to Campbell - a black male wearing a multicolored sweater and afro - to trigger the officer's suspicion.

Campbell was handcuffed and patted down before other officers arrived to confirm that Campbell was not the man they were chasing. But one officer found a baggie with a small amount of marijuana near Campbell's car, and placed him under arrest for possession. At that point, Miller pulled on a latex glove and started to lead Campbell around to the back of Parham's house. "That's when my eyes got real big and I said, "What is this?"" Campbell says.

There are differing accounts of what happened next. Campbell and Parham both say they were told by Miller that public body cavity searches were standard policy in this situation, because Campbell was to be released and summoned to court instead of transported to the overcrowded Marion County Lockup. Miller denies making such a statement. Campbell and Parham say Miller pulled Campbell's pants down to knee level, exposing his buttocks and genitals, and inserted his fingers into Campbell's groin and anal area.

Miller says he only pulled the pants partway down Campbell's rear end and then spread Campbell's buttocks in order to search for contraband. Campbell and Parham say the search was conducted where neighbors and onlookers could see. IPD officers deny this. No contraband was found. Campbell was issued a summons and released. No criminal charges were ever filed. Instead, Campbell filed his own lawsuit in the United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, alleging that the in-public body cavity search conducted on him is part of an IPD policy.

Campbell has asked Judge Sarah Evans Barker to certify his lawsuit as a class action and for the judge to issue a preliminary injunction preventing IPD from engaging in similar public searches. Barker has taken the injunction request under advisement while the parties submit written arguments.

Campbell's attorney, Michael Sutherlin, says there is a link between public body cavity searches and the policy, first announced in April 2002, of summoning to court people charged with minor nonviolent crimes, including possession of marijuana. The policy was designed to alleviate crowding at the Marion County Lockup, where initial processing includes a strip and body cavity search. Essentially, Sutherlin says, IPD continues to conduct those searches, only now they occur in public places.

"That is where it is, unfortunately" Suzannah Wilson Overholt of the Office of Corporation Counsel, which is defending the City of Indianapolis in the Campbell case, disputes the allegations. She says there is no IPD policy for public body cavity searches when an arrestee is summoned to court. Overholt says any searches that occur are based on individual characteristics of the case. "The summons policy has no effect on IPD procedures. These are appropriate searches incident to arrest, and the way those searches are conducted is governed by the federal Constitution and federal court decisions," she says.

Those court decisions allow police to conduct increasingly invasive searches if they have cause - such as feeling a lumpy object during a pat-down search - to believe contraband is concealed. Overholt also says that IPD officers do not pull suspects' pants down all the way to their knees, and do not do so in public view. "IPD is not conducting the kind of searches Mr. Campbell describes," she says.

But more than a half-dozen local criminal defense attorneys tell NUVO that they have recently represented clients who were subjected to just such a search by IPD officers. One noted that a particular officer likes to use a flashlight in his so-called "butt searches." The lawyers described male clients having their pants pulled down to the knees, their testicles and penis lifted up and their anus probed, all in a public setting.

Attorney Andrew Maternowski points to a transcript of a June 2001 Marion County Superior Court hearing that included the following exchange between an IPD officer and a judge following testimony about a public body cavity search:

Court [Master Commissioner Israel Nunez Cruz]: Officer Bell, you testified that this procedure of strip search, checking the buttocks cavity is not something you learned at the [police] academy, where did you get authorization to do that?

Officer Bell: Not the authorization, Your Honor, more or less from experience on the street. Learning that a lot of drug peddlers at the time seem to place crack cocaine in their buttock area.

Court: Is it the policy of the Indianapolis Police Department to do strip searches in public? Is that something that has been commonly done? Officer Bell: If ... I can't say commonly done, but it happens because that is where it is, unfortunately.

Court: This case shocks my conscience.

Criminal defense lawyer and former public defender Mike Moore, who has signed on to help represent Campbell in his lawsuit, says he has interviewed witnesses in five or six cases of public strip and body cavity searches, and has discussed several dozen more with other attorneys. Moore says he is convinced that, despite the official denials, the technique is widespread. "It's not a written policy, but cops learn from more experienced officers that this is where they should be looking for drugs."

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