A Warrant to Search Your Vagina

Doubling down on the drug war is likely to result in increased violence, not increased public safety. The damage these policies have done to black communities has been well documented. But less attention has been paid to the ways that women of color specifically are targeted in drug cases and are subject to abuse or assault by police officers.
Andrea J. Ritchie
July 21, 2017
The Homestead Correctional Institution in Florida City, Fla., earlier this year.
Isadora Kosofsky

As debate raged around health care and Russia-gate last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions quietly held a “national summit” of law enforcement representatives to discuss the future of policing.

Vice President Mike Pence predicted that the summit, which was largely held behind closed doors, would “impact this country for years to come.” Its purpose was to influence the recommendations — due out next week — of the Department of Justice Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, created in response to one of President Trump’s executive orders. Drugs featured prominently on the agenda.

This should come as no surprise. This spring Mr. Sessions instructed federal prosecutors to seek the highest possible sentences in drug cases, and the administration’s proposed budget increased spending on the Drug Enforcement Administration by $150 million while cutting funds for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration by $109 million. Mr. Sessions has also signaled his intent to step up enforcement of laws targeting marijuana. All these are in contrast to recent policy shifts reflecting the growing consensus that the aggressive policing of the war on drugs has failed.

Doubling down on the drug war is likely to result in increased violence, not increased public safety. The damage these policies have done to black communities has been well documented. But less attention has been paid to the ways that women of color specifically are targeted in drug cases and are subject to abuse or assault by police officers.

From 1980 to 2014, the rate of growth in the number of women in prison outpaced that of men by more than 50 percent (and black women continue to be incarcerated at twice the rate of white women). Women are particularly vulnerable to the drug enforcement tactics acclaimed by Steven H. Cook, the former prosecutor who leads Mr. Sessions’s task force: “We made buys from individuals who were lower in the organization. We used the mandatory minimums to pressure them to cooperate.”

As is true in most industries, women are largely relegated to the lower echelons of the drug trade. They have been aggressively prosecuted on the theory that they would lead law enforcement to elusive “drug kingpins.” Yet because they had little information to trade, they were often saddled with sentences much longer than those of men higher up in the industry.

Then there are the police encounters that lead to these sentences, which are often characterized by physical, sexual and sometimes deadly violence.

The infamous former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw — convicted in 2015 of 18 counts, including the rape and sexual battery of black women — often ordered women to lift their shirts or open their pants to show him they were not carrying any drugs. In another notorious case, four women arrested on drug-related charges came forward to accuse two Los Angeles police officers of coercing sex from them. Research suggests that drug law enforcement is too often accompanied by such sexual shakedowns, in which women — who may or may not be using, carrying or dealing drugs — are given the choice between performing sexual acts or facing what could be decades in prison.

A Government Accountability Office report on contraband searches at airports, released in 2000, reflected another form of violation. Black, Asian-American and Hispanic women, it found, were almost three times as likely as men of the same race to be subject to humiliating strip-searches. Black women in particular were more likely than any other group to be X-rayed in addition to being frisked, though they were less likely to be actually carrying drugs. The report also mentioned instances in which travelers were subjected to body cavity searches and monitored bowel movements.

Such intrusive procedures are not limited to airports. In 2015 Charneshia Corley was pulled out of her car at a gas station after a police officer claimed he smelled marijuana during a traffic stop. Two female officers then forced her legs apart and probed her vagina in full view of passers-by.

Three years earlier, two other black women, Brandy Hamilton and Alexandria Randle, were also subjected to a roadside cavity search by officers who claimed to have smelled marijuana. These incidents eventually prompted the Texas Legislature to pass a bill banning cavity searches during traffic stops absent a warrant.

You may now be asking yourself: Can police officers actually get a warrant to search someone’s vagina? The answer is yes.

One night in 1986 Massachusetts police officers showed up at Shirley Rodriques’s house, forced open her door and, finding her sleeping in bed with her husband, told her that they had a warrant to search her vagina for drugs. When she refused their order to reach inside herself and take out the “stuff,” police took her to a hospital where, Ms. Rodriques said, a physician forcefully searched her vagina while a nurse held her down on the table.

No drugs were found. But when Ms. Rodriques filed a lawsuit claiming her rights had been violated, courts found no wrongdoing, citing the existence of a valid judicial warrant. It is still possible to get such a warrant today.

Finally, there are the fatalities. While there are no official statistics on the number of women killed or injured in drug raids and arrests, the cases that have come to light give plenty of cause for concern. Some victims were mothers, like Tarika Wilson, shot to death by a SWAT team in 2008 in Ohio, as she stood, unarmed in a bedroom with her six children, holding her 1-year-old baby. Some were pregnant, like Danette Daniels, shot to death by a New Jersey police officer following a drug arrest. Some, like Frankie Perkins and Theresa Henderson, were choked to death by officers who believed — erroneously, it turned out — that they had swallowed drugs. In one case, a transgender teenager named Shelly Hilliard was brutally murdered after being set up by police as an informant.

In addition to the drug war, women have also suffered from the “broken windows” policing practices — the aggressive enforcement of minor offenses on the unproven theory that it will prevent more serious crime — that Mr. Sessions promotes. For instance, soon after Eric Garner suffocated in a police chokehold, Rosann Miller, a black woman who was seven months pregnant, said she was also placed in a chokehold by a New York City police officer during an encounter that started over the use of a barbecue outside her home.

Officers have also used the threat of arrests for minor “broken windows” offenses to extort sex. In one case, a New York City officer was convicted in 2010 of official misconduct for offering to rip up a summons for being in a park after dark in exchange for oral sex.

These encounters do not reduce violence; they contribute to it. Critics of police violence and mass incarceration have rightfully shed light on the pain of families separated by long prison terms, of women torn from partners and children. But women’s suffering isn’t restricted to heartbreak: They have been raped, choked and killed, all in the service of public safety. Sadly, the recommendations of D.O.J.’s task force are likely to be a recipe for more of the same.

 

Andrea J. Ritchie is a lawyer, a researcher in residence at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and the author of the forthcoming “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color.”

July 26, 2017