United States v. Edwards, No. 10-4256

Decided Dec. 29, 2011

Officers detained Joseph Edwards on a public street when his ex-girlfriend filed a complaint with the police that he had threatened her with a firearm earlier in the evening. Though the encounter was calm and neither party, the officers nor the defendant, seemed to have any reason to fear an altercation, Edwards was placed in handcuffs for the safety of the officers and the police performed a pat-down search of Edwards’ person that yielded no results. Once an arrest warrant for the assault charge had been issued, a police transport arrived to take Edwards into custody. However, officers decided to perform another search. This time, still on a public street, officers removed Edwards’ pants and underwear and noticed a plastic bag filled with white crystals tied around his genitals. Officers then used a knife to cut the baggie off Edwards.

On appeal from Edwards’ conditional plea of guilty, the Fourth Circuit vacated his conviction and remanded the case with orders to suppress the evidence. The court found the search to be a strip search and analyzed it under the factors laid in out Bell v. Wolfish: “1) the place in which the search was conducted; 2) the scope of the particular intrusion; 3) the manner in which the search was conducted; and 4) the justification for initiating the search.” 441 U.S. 520 (1979).

First, the strip search was conducted on a public street. Second, the drugs were removed from Edwards’ body in an unnecessarily dangerous and fearful manner. Finally, though the court recognized that the search inside Edwards’ underwear may have been justified because of the threat of a firearm, once the substance inside the underwear was found—and found not to be a weapon—the officers were not then justified in continuing the search in such a dangerous manner. In order to deter further Fourth Amendment violations, then, the court found that exclusion of the evidence was the best remedy.

Judge Diaz dissented. He recognized that the search was performed in public but disagreed that the manner of retrieving the contraband was unreasonable. Just because Edwards hid the drugs in an unusual and sensitive location, Diaz asserted, does not remove officers of their authority and duty to seize obviously visible contraband during a search incident to a lawful arrest. Also, even if the search were unreasonable, Diaz doubts the deterrent effect of excluding this evidence and suggested that other remedies, perhaps a § 1983 claim, would be more appropriate.

Full Opinion

-C. Alexander Cable

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