Court rules parking lot strip search unlawful

A suspect sued officers for civil conspiracy, excessive force and performing an unreasonable search after being searched in a public parking lot


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Robinson v. Hawkins, 2019 (8th Cir. 2019)

Kayla Robinson was in the front passenger seat as her boyfriend drove her car. When the boyfriend saw a police checkpoint, he made an illegal U-turn and officers stopped the car.

As the officers approached the car, Officer Hawkins saw the boyfriend pass something to Robinson. Hawkins, a female officer, told Robinson to show her hands and step outside the car. Officer Hawkins handcuffed Robinson and performed a frisk but didn’t find any contraband.

Making the decision to strip search a suspect in a parking lot instead of at the station led to a lawsuit against the officers involved. (Photo/Pixabay)
Making the decision to strip search a suspect in a parking lot instead of at the station led to a lawsuit against the officers involved. (Photo/Pixabay)

When asked what she had placed in her waistband, Robinson admitted to having attempted to hide some marijuana. When Officer Hawkins told Robinson to retrieve the marijuana, Robinson asked to be brought to the police station to retrieve the marijuana there, but the officer refused.

Officer Hawkins took Robinson to a nearby parking lot for a more intensive search.

Robinson again protested being searched in a public parking lot and asked to be taken to the station. The officer allegedly replied, “Bitch, no, we’re doing this right now,” calling Robinson a “f***ing dope fiend.”

Officer Hawkins requested rubber gloves over the radio and a male officer drove up and delivered a pair of gloves. Robinson retrieved the marijuana and gave it to Hawkins. Robinson claims the officer then grabbed her by the arms and pushed her face-first into the trailer, yelling, “Bitch, this isn’t all that you have. You’re not freaking out over a bag of marijuana.”

Robinson also claims Officer Hawkins then unfastened Robinson’s pants, pulled down her underwear, and “touched … Robinson’s vagina, anus, and inside her vagina lips.” Additionally, Robinson claims that shortly thereafter, Officer Hawkins planted a baggie containing drugs on the ground. Robinson claimed, and video recordings confirmed, at least one male officer, possibly two, watched the forced parking lot strip search.

Robinson was taken to the police station, where she wrote a statement about the events and the trauma she felt. When Robinson asked for an attorney, another female officer, Swinton, read her statement, balled it up and threw it in the trash while laughing at Robinson. Officer Swinton later explained she trashed the statement because it “was not signed.” Officer Swinton wrote an incident report, which the police defendants admitted was “riddled with inaccuracies and omissions.”

Robinson was never charged with any crime, nor was there any evidence contraband had been found during the strip search. After her release, Robinson was treated at the emergency department for shoulder pain, neck pain, and cuts and bruising on her wrists. Robinson sued both officers for civil conspiracy and Hawkins, who performed the search, for excessive force and performing an unreasonable search.

Not surprisingly, the court denied the officers' request to grant qualified immunity and dismiss the lawsuit. The court stated a reasonable jury could conclude the search was unreasonable in both scope and manner. Perhaps ironically, this is a case where a street sergeant really could have made a difference. Yet the male officer who delivered the rubber gloves used in the forced strip search was a sergeant and he apparently remained close during the search.

The court had previously declined “to adopt a bright-line rule that when a detainee has been secured, and travel to a station-house is possible, an on-street [strip search] is an unconstitutional, unreasonable search.” Nonetheless, the court cited factors such as the gender of the searching officer, visibility to passers-by, the need for the search and the intrusiveness (inspection contrasted with penetration).

Finally, another reminder – talk nice, think mean. The court stated, “Robinson’s claim that Officer Hawkins called her a ‘bitch’ and a ‘f***ing dope fiend,’ is “evidence of insulting, intimidating or humiliating comments or jokes.” Such conduct, said the court, violated prior decisions that were “sufficiently clear to inform Officer Hawkins her search of Robinson was unlawful both in scope and manner.”

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