BOSTON — A detective who removed a bag containing drugs from between a man’s buttocks while he was on a public sidewalk conducted an illegal strip search, the state’s highest court ruled Tuesday.
The Supreme Judicial Court threw out evidence against Carlos Morales, finding that the bag of tan powder was seized illegally.
The court said Lowell police should have taken Morales to the police station or another private location to conduct the search rather than to expose him publicly. Morales was handcuffed and face down on a sidewalk when a detective lifted his waistband and removed the bag from between his buttocks.
The court called it “an embarrassing and humiliating intrusion of the defendant’s privacy,” and upheld a lower court judge’s order suppressing the evidence.
The search took place in November 2009 after a confidential informant told police that Morales was selling heroin out of an SUV. After his vehicle was stopped by police, an officer said he observed Morales trying to conceal something behind the right side of his torso.
A detective walked Morales to a more secluded area by a house, pulled back the waistband of his shorts and saw a clear plastic bag between his buttocks. Police said Morales then tried to run away and struck the detective with his elbow as he did. Both men fell to the ground, and police handcuffed Morales.
Police said that after Morales tried to reach down into his shorts, the detective pulled back the waistband and retrieved the plastic bags. After the drugs were seized, Morales’ father approached the scene and saw him lying face down on the sidewalk with his buttocks exposed.
Morales was indicted on charges of possession of heroin with intent to distribute, being a habitual offender, assault and battery on a police officer and resisting arrest. He asked a judge to suppress the drugs, claiming that they were obtained as a result of an unlawful search. A judge found that the detective’s actions of lifting back his waistband to retrieve the drugs amounted to an unreasonable strip search.
The high court agreed.
“The action involved unconsented-to police observation of the defendant’s intimate, private area and also involved the public exposure of the defendant’s intimate, private area, all of which amounted to a significant intrusion of the defendant’s privacy,” Justice Roderick Ireland wrote for the court in the unanimous opinion.
A spokeswoman for Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone, whose office appealed the lower court judge’s ruling, said prosecutors are reviewing the high court’s ruling “to determine what our next course of action should be.”
Morales’ lawyer, Peter Onek, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.