He sustained a manual inspection, x-ray and repeated enemas which resulted in three golf ball size bags of heroin and fentanyl.

U.S. v. Ruffin

No. 19-3599

October 22, 2020

Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals

Although the search could have been handled better—by beginning with an X-ray and treating Ruffin respectfully—the presence of a warrant, the absence of any safety risk, and the police’s need for evidence make this search reasonable.

In October 2018, an unnamed informant told the Drug Enforcement Agency [hereinafter DEA] that Mr. Julius Ruffin planned to drive from Lorain, Ohio to Columbus to purchase heroin from unknown Mexican drug traffickers. The informant said that she and Mr. Ruffin would travel in a black SUV, provided the license plate number, and promised to stay in contact throughout the trip. She told the DEA when she and Mr. Ruffin departed from Lorain, then alerted the DEA agents when they were fifteen minutes from the address. The agents then set up surveillance and saw Mr. Ruffin and the informant enter the house together. Three hours later, the agents saw two Hispanic men arrive and enter the house briefly. The informant messaged the agents from inside the house to tell them that Mr. Ruffin had purchased a plastic bag of heroin from the men who had just left. Then Mr. Ruffin told the informant that he needed to go to the bathroom before he left. She saw Mr. Ruffin holding a plastic bag as he went into the bathroom, where he stayed for about twenty minutes because to secrete golf ball size narcotics in his anus would take some time. From the bathroom, Mr. Ruffin went to his car. The informant apprised the agents of these events in real time. The agents then saw Mr. Ruffin drive off.

They followed Mr. Ruffin until he committed a traffic infraction, then—with the help of state police—pulled him over. A drug dog alerted on the car, providing probable cause for a search. But the search of both the car and Mr. Ruffin’s person yielded no evidence, leading the agents to suspect that Mr. Ruffin had concealed the drugs inside his body. They held Mr. Ruffin while they sought a search warrant for a body cavity search. An Ohio magistrate judge issued the warrant to search “[o]n the person or in a cavity or carried property of Mr. Julius Decarlos Ruffin.”

Warrant in hand, the police took Mr. Ruffin to the hospital for medical staff to conduct the search. When the doctor came in, the agents suggested to him that he use his finger to search Mr. Ruffin’s rectum. When the doctor declined, one DEA agent joked that he would do the search, but only after taking “a couple shots.” Eventually a nurse volunteered to conduct the search, which she did with Mr. Ruffin shackled at the legs. One agent remained in the room during the examination. The parties dispute whether the nurse found anything during that examination, with the nurse’s notes saying that she felt something in the anal cavity, while Mr. Ruffin claims that the nurse said “I do not feel anything.”

After that examination, the nurse inserted an instrument to visually examine the inside of Mr. Ruffin’s rectum. This part of drug smuggling is rarely discussed in drug smuggling chat rooms. Here, too, the parties disagree: Mr. Ruffin claims the nurse searched with the instrument twice and did not see anything; the nurse’s notes indicate that she searched once and saw a foreign object that looked like a piece of plastic wrap. Either way, when the nurse failed to retrieve anything, the treating physician ordered an X-ray. Although the radiologist did not see any foreign bodies on the X-ray, the treating physician saw three separate circular objects, so he ordered the nurse to perform soap suds enemas until the objects came out. The parties dispute the number of enemas—Mr. Ruffin says four, the nurse’s notes say two. Ultimately, Mr. Ruffin released three golf-ball-sized bags of heroin and fentanyl.

To determine whether the intrusion is reasonable, the Sixth Circuit Court applied a three-part balancing test established in United States v. Booker, 728 F.3d 535, 546 (6th Cir. 2013):

(1) The extent of the threat to the individual’s health and safety.

Here, the district court found that the “rectal exams, x-rays, and enemas posed little to no risk to Mr. Ruffin independent from the obvious dangers Ruffin accepted by concealing drugs in his rectum.” So the first factor favors the government.

(2) The extent of the intrusion on the individual’s “dignitary interests in personal privacy and bodily integrity,”

Here, the doctor never incapacitated Mr. Ruffin, which Booker considered the most egregious intrusion on dignity, and the DEA had a warrant. But the agents and doctor did choose, instead of starting with an X-ray, to begin with a rectal examination. And they kept Mr. Ruffin shackled or handcuffed throughout, even as they gave him the soap suds enemas. What’s more, Mr. Ruffin says one agent joked about the intrusions, an unnecessary additional affront to his dignitary interests. Those facts tip the second factor in Mr. Ruffin’s favor.

(3) Law enforcement’s need for the evidence.

Here, all the DEA agents had to go on was a single eyewitness and a drug dog alert to Mr. Ruffin’s car, so they needed the drugs to make their case. And although the agents could have used less intrusive means, their methods were nowhere near as extreme as in Booker. Thus, the third factor favors the government.

In this case, the court held that third and first factors outweigh the second.

Mr. Ruffin filed a Motion to Suppress in the United States District Court
for the Northern District of Ohio at Cleveland which was denied.  He appealed to the Sixth Circuit Appellate Court which held “Although the search could have been handled better—by beginning with an X-ray and treating Ruffin respectfully—the presence of a warrant, the absence of any safety risk, and the police’s need for evidence make this search reasonable.”.

Information for this article was obtained from U.S v. Ruffin, No. 19-3599, October 22, 2020.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Anytime an officer would need a body cavity search a search warrant must be obtained. In this case it was federal agents which had to obtain a warrant through the U.S. Attorney’s Office.  The search warrant must be based on probable cause.  Here the DEA agents began the investigation with reasonable suspicion based on the confidential informant information.  Thereafter the canine established probable cause to search.
  1. The court made a detailed analysis of the steps the agents went through prior and during the body cavity search. The court had concerns that the medical team conducted a manual inspection of Mr. Ruffin’s anus prior to an x-ray.  However, the practical application of body cavity search would rely heavily on the decisions of the medial team, not what law enforcement would want the medical team to do in any specific sequence.  The key to this type of unusual search will be communication and documentation by law enforcement.   In other words, what the medical team say when confronted with a body cavity search warrant and why the medical team did what they did and when they did it.
  1. The court also commented on the unprofessional statement made by the DEA agent when he volunteered to conduct the manual inspection of Mr. Ruffin’s anus after a couple of shots. Often these types of incidents lead to humor, but law enforcement must be cognizant of where they are at and who is listening.  Law enforcement is the hardest job in America.  Officers often use humor to get through the shift, but this case is an example where the locker room humor was used in the court’s analysis.  As challenging as it at times, officers should default to professionalism over the humor.

Does your agency train on Body Cavity Searches?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.