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Body Cavity Search Curbed by Ruling

NEW YORK — Police officers can lie to suspects. They can fight back if assaulted. And they can use deadly force if necessary. They cannot, however, pull contraband from a suspect's body cavities without a search warrant.

That is a new order in the New York Police Department patrol guide, put in place after a recent state Court of Appeals decision that said officers cannot conduct an "unreasonable body search" without first getting a warrant.

The March decision centered around a fairly routine case – the February 2005 arrest of a drug suspect, Azim Hall, in Harlem.

Police said Hall, 28, was seen selling crack outside a bodega near West 128th Street and St. Nicholas Terrace. No drugs were immediately found on him, but once in custody, Officer Frederick Spiegel ordered Hall to strip off his clothes and squat.

According to court papers, Spiegel then saw a string hanging from between Hall's buttocks. Lt. Stephen Burnes, twice ordered Hall to remove the string from his body, but Hall refused. Burnes pulled it himself, and said it was part of a small plastic bag that contained crack.

Hall was indicted on drug-possession charges. His lawyer moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that police had needed a warrant before examining a body cavity.

According to court papers, Burnes argued that drug suspects often secrete contraband in their body cavities, and Spiegel said strip searches are a vital police tool because dealers often hide crack down their pants or in their jackets.

A State Supreme Court judge found both officers "credible witnesses" but dismissed the indictment, saying the body cavity search was "unjustified by exigent circumstances," meaning there was no emergency.

The Appellate Division reversed that finding, saying the observation of the protruding string justified the officers' actions.

In March, however, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, ordered the indictment dismissed a second time, saying police had every right to strip and inspect Hall, but had conducted an "unreasonable body search" by pulling the string.

"We conclude that a visual body inspection may be conducted if the police have a factual basis supporting a reasonable suspicion that the arrestee has evidence concealed inside a body cavity and the search is conducted in a reasonable manner," the court said. "If the visual inspection reveals the presence of a suspicious object, the police must obtain a warrant authorizing the object's removal unless there are exigent circumstances."

Police sources say the revision, in practical terms, will slow down the arrest process, though not significantly.

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