The NYPD Has a Strip Search ProblemS

Carissa Quinones was seven-and-a-half months pregnant when NYPD officers broke into the apartment where she was staying, strip-searched her, and then (she says) erroneously accused her of carrying drugs. Now she's suing, and her case is at the center of two problems the City of New York faces: illegal strip searches, and bogus drug arrests.

Quinones's complaint alleges that she was staying with her four-year-old son at the Bronx apartment of a friend when several unnamed NYPD officers "aggressively entered the apartment with their guns drawn, terrorizing plaintiff and all of the other occupants in the apartment." She says they performed "an invasive strip search," finding nothing, and then "falsely alleged that they found one (1) plastic bag of marijuana, one (1) burnt cigarette, and ten (10) plastic bags of crack cocaine in plaintiff's custody and control." Quinones then "spent approximately sixty (60) hours in police custody and approximately five (5) months making numerous court appearances before all charges against her were dismissed." In the process, she says she suffered "mental anguish, shock, fright, apprehension, embarrassment, humiliation, and deprivation of her constitutional rights."

Chris Dunn, Associate Legal Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told me that illegal strip searches by NYPD officers are "a longstanding problem" that "25 years of litigation" have done little to correct. As far as he was aware, the most the NYPD had done to address the problem was issuing a training video in (belated) response to a critical report by the Civilian Complaint Review Board. He also noted that the NYPD patrol guide actually has pretty strict restrictions on when officers can strip-search people. They read, in part,

A strip search of a prisoner may not be conducted routinely in connection with an arrest. Strip searchs may only be conducted with the knowledge and approval of the precinct, police service area, transit district desk officer or the borough Court Section supervisor. A strip search may only be conducted when the arresting officer reasonably suspects that weapons, contraband or evidence may be concealed upon the person or in the clothing in such a manner that they may not be discovered by the previous search
methods.

The problem is that cops don't actually abide by those restrictions. Says Dunn, "it's less the policy that's bad — it's more that officers are violating policy and the department isn't doing enough to correct it." Illegal strip searches have also been a big problem in New York City jails — the City had to pay $33 million last year to detainees who were unnecessarily strip-searched after being arrested for minor crimes like trespassing. And a case involving jailhouse strip-searches for minor offenses is currently before the Supreme Court — if the Supreme Court approves these searches, it could become legal to strip any detainee, no matter how small her crime.

According to some, though, an even bigger problem is the second injustice Quinones says she faced: fake drug charges. Her complaint cites four other lawsuits where plaintiffs say they were arrested because they happened to be near someone else who had drugs. And Jeffrey Fagan, a professor at Columbia Law School, told me that an even bigger problem than illegal strip searches was "false arrests that expose innocent defendants to unregulated punishment."

But illegal searches and false drug arrests often happen together. Elizabeth Saylor, an attorney familiar with such cases, told me that "we have been repeatedly contacted by clients who were strip searched illegally without any justification and/or who were wrongly charged with possessing drugs or other contraband that they did not possess." Moreover, the NYPD isn't supposed to arrest people for possessing marijuana anymore — they're just supposed to issue a ticket. But if someone "publicly displays" marijuana, that's a misdemeanor and an arrestable offense. Some accuse cops of frisking them or otherwise exposing the hidden marijuana, then charging them with misdemeanors. A man named Antonio Rivera told WNYC about one such arrest: "So they checked my pockets, my coat pockets, and they patted my jean pockets, and then once he felt the package [of marijuana] I had in my crotch area, he went into my pants and he pulled it out." Police spokesman Paul Browne told the network that officers are "disciplined" if they conduct an illegal search, but that discipline isn't particularly severe: "If an officer conducted an improper search, he is instructed on how to do it properly; unless it was particularly egregious in which case he would face more severe disciplinary action."

It's unclear what discipline, if any, the officers who searched Quinones will face. But if it's true that they stripped her, then forced her to spend months fighting false charges, much of this while she was pregnant, then they deserve a lot more than a talking-to. Sadly, given the fact that the allegations against them are part of a pattern the NYPD doesn't seem all that interested in changing, they may well receive no punishment at all.