Puerto Rico Prisoner Forced to Undergo Abdominal Surgery, or, the Case of the Apparently Nonexistent Contraband Cell Phone
The First Circuit held last month that a Puerto Rico prisoner’s lawsuit claiming Fourth Amendment violations can proceed, where the inmate alleges that he was
forced to undergo dangerous, painful, and extremely intrusive abdominal surgery for the purpose of finding a contraband telephone allegedly concealed in his intestines, even though the basis for believing there was a telephone was slight, several tests had indicated the absence of any such object, and additional, far less intrusive testing could easily have obviated any need for such grievous intrusion.
(Sanchez v. Pereira-Castillo, et al., No. 08-1748, 1st Cir., Dec. 23, 2009, p. 21)
Although prisoners are not afforded full Fourth Amendment protections — for instance, their cells can be searched at any time — they do retain a limited right of bodily privacy while incarcerated (see pp. 15-16). Here, the court emphasized the dramatically invasive nature of the search — involving “total anesthesia, surgical invasion of the abdominal cavity, and two days of recovery in the hospital” (p. 23) — combined with the lack of justification for such an extreme procedure, given that a variety of less intrusive measures, such as an X-ray, could have been used. The court also rejected the government’s arguments that the surgery was not a search at all, or, if it was a search, was not unconstitutional, simply because it was a medical procedure: “When a medical procedure is performed at the instigation of law enforcement for the purpose of obtaining evidence, the fact that the search is executed by a medical professional does not insulate it from Fourth Amendment scrutiny” (p. 26). More details after the jump…
Angel Luis Sanchez, an inmate in Puerto Rico’s Bayamon 501 prison, filed the suit after a doctor at the Rio Piedras Medical Center, on the instruction of prison guards, placed him under total anesthesia and conducted exploratory abdominal surgery, ostensibly to retrieve a cell phone concealed in his rectum. The sole apparent basis for the guards’ belief that Sanchez was concealing a cell phone was a positive result when he was scanned with a handheld metal detector.* Subsequently, however, all of the following failed to confirm any evidence of contraband in Sanchez’s abdomen:
- sniff search by law enforcement dogs
- strip search
- second scan with metal detector, this time while naked
- two bowel movements
- manual rectal examination
- series of lab tests
- second manual rectal examination
Yet, Sanchez alleges, the doctor went ahead with the exploratory surgery anyway — over his repeated requests for additional X-rays, and without first conducting a second rectal exam (as she’d promised him she would do once he was anesthetized, before going through with the surgery). The exploratory surgery “revealed that there was no foreign object in plaintiff’s gastrointestinal tract,” a finding confirmed by a post-surgical X-ray (p. 6; for litany of tests, see pp. 3-6). After two days of recovery, Sanchez was discharged from the hospital and returned to his prison cell.
For the reasons explained above, the First Circuit held that, if the plaintiff’s allegations are true, the prison guards who oversaw the search and transported him to the hospital, as well as the doctor who conducted the surgery, violated his Fourth Amendment rights — reversing the district court’s dismissal of the suit for failure to state a claim. The court also held that neither the prison guards nor the doctor are entitled to qualified immunity: A reasonable guard would have known that “forcing a prisoner to undergo an invasive abdominal surgery for the purpose of determining whether or not he is hiding a cell phone in his rectum is a violation of a clearly established constitutional right” (p. 40), and as for the doctor, “[n]o detailed knowledge of the law was required to understand that a physician should not perform invasive, non-medically required surgery on a prisoner in circumstances such as those described in the complaint” (p. 46). However, the First Circuit upheld the dismissal of the claims against prison administrators; of all the claims related to the x-rays, strip searches, and rectal examinations; and of the plaintiff’s claims under the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments.
* Sanchez was told by a doctor that abdominal X-rays taken after the second metal detector scan had also turned up evidence of contraband, but it’s unclear from the opinion whether that was true (see p. 4). Sanchez’s repeated requests that doctors conduct another set of X-rays were denied.