What's the rush?

June 08, 2007

How much privacy should someone hiding drugs on his body expect? Certainly more than John August Paulino was given when Baltimore County police searched his buttocks while arresting him at a carwash late at night. This was hardly an emergency situation, and Maryland's highest court was right to say that police went too far and violated Mr. Paulino's rights against an unreasonable search and seizure.

Granted, Mr. Paulino is not the most sympathetic victim. After all, he was caught with a plastic bag of crack cocaine that he had concealed in a popular hiding place for drugs. But the law protects the guilty as well as the innocent.

Acting on an informant's tip, police waited for Mr. Paulino to show up at a Dundalk carwash, presumably carrying drugs. In the course of arresting him, one officer inserted a gloved hand into Mr. Paulino's exposed shorts and then pulled the drug-filled bag from his buttocks. Police claimed that was a routine, permissible search. But Mr. Paulino insisted it was an unlawful strip search and body cavity search.

A 4-3 majority of the Court of Appeals agreed with Mr. Paulino, finding the search "highly intrusive and demeaning." The court also disapproved of the fact that the search was conducted in a public place of business where strangers and even the driver and other passengers of the car in which Mr. Paulino rode to the carwash could see what was going on, though police said the area of the arrest and search was secluded. Without reason to think that Mr. Paulino was carrying a concealed weapon or would destroy evidence, the court majority rightly believed that police could have waited to conduct the search in a more appropriate, private place.

The non-emergency aspects of this case also make the dissenters' argument that the majority opinion restricts the ability of police to conduct reasonable searches for drugs hidden on someone's body less than persuasive. Mr. Paulino, a repeat offender, is serving a mandatory 10-year term for possession with intent to distribute.

The attorney general's office is considering whether to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. But unless and until a higher court speaks, this case should serve as a reminder that police can take the time to provide a drug carrier with a modicum of privacy, especially when there's no pressing need not to.

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