South Dakota: Lawsuit Challenges Motorist Catheterization

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South Dakota’s use of catheters to forcibly administer drug tests against motorists and others suspected of minor drug crimes has sparked a class action lawsuit. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is asking US District Judge Roberto A. Lange to order the South Dakota Highway Patrol, local police departments and hospitals to immediately cease their participation in the practice.

“Forced catheterization is painful, humiliating and deeply degrading,” ACLU attorney James D. Leach wrote. “Forced urinary catheterization has only a marginal advantage over a simple blood draw in detecting the prior use of amphetamine or methamphetamine, and its residual presence in the body. Society has a low interest in detecting the prior use of marijuana, and its residual presence in the body.”  

In some cases, police threaten to take a suspect to a hospital to have this painful testing method performed without anesthesia as a way to convince suspects to “voluntarily” provide a test sample. This happened to Jason Riis after Pierre Police pulled him over for having a broken license plate light last year. Riis agreed to provide a sample voluntarily after the officer obtained a search warrant, yet Riis was catheterized anyway. Often judges have no idea that police intend to use this form of search, which the ACLU contends is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

“A search warrant application, or a search warrant, that fails to disclose that it seeks forcible catheterization is a general warrant that lacks a sufficiently particularized description of the person or thing to be seized or the place to be searched,” Leach wrote.

Motorist Gena Alvarez likewise objected to her treatment at the hands of South Dakota Highway Patrol officers who suspected that she may have used marijuana.

“Male police officers inspected Alvarez’s genitals during the forcible catheterization, which unnecessary, humiliating and served no legitimate state interest,” Leach wrote. “The forcible catheterization caused Alvarez humiliation, degradation, unnecessary pain, difficulty urinating, and emotional distress, both when it occurred and later.”

As a victim of abuse as a child, Alvarez says the incident was particularly traumatizing. In addition to complaints from drivers, a separate lawsuit challenges the use of this technique against a three-year-old boy as a means of investigating possible abuse.

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