On an August night in 2015, Minneapolis police officers arrested Guntallwon Brown on suspicion of dealing crack cocaine. Following routine procedure, they brought him back to Third Precinct headquarters to be searched and questioned.
But when it appeared that Brown had hidden the drugs in his rectum, the officers secured a search warrant, authorizing the recovery of the drugs by "any means necessary."
At North Memorial Medical Center, the first doctor they approached refused to perform a procedure to remove the drugs on ethical grounds.
Police then obtained a second warrant and drove Brown to Hennepin County Medical Center, where they found a willing physician — and the drugs.
Brown's attorney, Hersch Izek of the Legal Rights Center, said the case raised a host of troubling questions. Last week he called on a Hennepin County judge to toss out the evidence on the grounds that it was illegally seized, in part, because it was an undue intrusion on his privacy.
The procedure, he said, amounted to an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and an example of police overreach.
Observers say that the question of how far police can go in their efforts to seize drugs without trampling on civil liberties remains legally murky.
Michael Friedman, executive director of the Legal Rights Center, said that the search warrant in the case was overly broad.
He criticized the decision by the HCMC physician, Dr. Paul Nystrom, who has a law enforcement background and worked closely with several area police agencies, for going along with the faulty document in what "reflects the drug war's morals gone astray."
Izek said Judge Karen Janisch, who signed the warrants, didn't weigh the potential medical risks, nor did she consider alternatives to the procedure before giving the officers a "blank check" to search Brown without his permission. Janisch declined to comment. Izek also argued that the officers overstepped their bounds by drafting a search warrant that "was improperly phrased."
At HCMC, Nystrom found a baggie containing just under three grams of crack cocaine in Brown's anal cavity, police said. He was charged with fifth-degree possession of narcotics. Judge Juan Hoyos has yet to rule in the case.
Doctor consulted lawyer
Izek argued that the officers had acted in bad faith and that the experience left Brown shaken — and he still suffers from bleeding and continued discomfort, Izek said.
Bryce Robinson, one of the officers involved and a member of the Third Precinct Community Response Team, which specializes in narcotics and prostitution cases, testified that he and the other officer, Sean McTaggart, had good reason to conduct the search and that everything was done "by the book."
"With the exception of the mouth, body cavity searches shall only be performed by medical personnel, in a medical facility, pursuant to a search warrant or court order," the police department's policy on such searches reads. After being presented with a warrant, a doctor, and not police, decides on the best and safest procedure to extract the drugs, Robinson said. Given Brown's unwillingness to agree to any other procedure, Robinson testified, the HCMC doctor was left with little choice.
Robinson said that he convinced the signing judge of the urgency of securing a warrant because of the potential health risk to Brown: on several occasions suspects have died when the drugs they were smuggling seeped into their bloodstream.
Like his counterpart at North Memorial who told police that he wouldn't perform an invasive procedure without the patient's consent, Nystrom, the HCMC physician, testified that he consulted a lawyer for the hospital before making his decision.
A hospital spokeswoman declined to comment on the case, citing the pending litigation, but stressed that patient safety was a top priority.
"While every situation involving a patient in the custody of law enforcement is unique, HCMC will act pursuant to a warrant/court order as directed," spokeswoman Christine Hill said.
Jean Heyer, spokeswoman for the Hennepin County Attorney, said the office was confident that the judge would ultimately conclude the officers acted reasonably in relying on the information they had and initiating a medically safe search of Brown.
"Our position was that officers did follow the correct procedures in obtaining the search warrants," Heyer said. The police department on Tuesday declined to comment on the matter.
Brown, who is weighing a lawsuit against the two officers, is next scheduled to appear in court in mid-September.