A lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union alleges two southern Minnesota sheriff’s deputies illegally conducted a cavity search on a woman on the side of the road in below-freezing temperatures, ignoring her pleas to be taken to the hospital or police station and searched “the right way.”
During the 2018 incident, Kelli Jo Torres, 38, asked the Rock County deputies 25 times to stop trying to reach into her vagina, according to the lawsuit. The deputies kept her outside without a coat in 9-degree weather, along an interstate on-ramp, for a half-hour before taking her to a hospital to complete the cavity search.
“The action by Rock County’s deputies clearly shows that Kelli Torres’ dignity did not matter, and they believed they could treat her however they wanted in violation of the Fourth Amendment,” said Ian Bratlie, attorney for the ACLU’s Minnesota chapter, in a statement. “This conduct is shameful, and must be greeted with training, discipline and policy changes to avoid this situation in the future.”
At the hospital, a nurse found a meth pipe in Torres’ vagina. Rock County prosecutors charged Torres for the paraphernalia but later dropped the case, according to the suit.
Jeffrey Haubrich, Rock County attorney, said his office has not yet been served with the lawsuit. “There is nothing for us to comment on, nor would we be likely to comment,” said Haubrich. “Unlike the ACLU, we don’t attempt to litigate through the press.”
According to the lawsuit:
On Nov. 27, 2018, Torres was a passenger in a car traveling through Luverne, Minn. Deputies pulled the vehicle over, citing an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, on an I-90 on-ramp.
Deputy Dallas Hamm asked the driver, Derek White, where they were heading. White said they’d just dropped off another passenger in the area. The deputies asked White to step out of the car and, according to the lawsuit, illegally searched White, finding a “small amount of drugs” in the brim of his hat.
Hamm ordered Torres to exit the vehicle for a search, asking her to leave her coat in the car. While Hamm watched, his partner, Shelley Douty, began an invasive search. In the incident captured on squad car dash video, Torres told the deputies she was cold and not wearing underwear, and that “it feels like you’re grabbing my crotch.” The deputies said they felt what they thought was a baggie in her vagina.
“It’s something,” said Douty. “I feel something. I don’t know what the hell it is.”
Torres told the officers she would cooperate if they’d take her to the station or hospital. “She don’t feel a baggie in my crotch, but if we go down there, then she can search me. Whatever, I can squat and cough and get undressed the right way you know, like instead of on the side of the highway.”
The footage shows Torres repeatedly asking the officer not to touch her vagina.
“I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t put your hands all up in me,” Torres told them.
“I don’t think you can do that to me,” she said.
And later: “She doesn’t have the right to put her hand in my vagina.”
The deputies refused her request and blamed her for making them stay out in the cold.
“No, I did not,” retorted Torres.
“Yes, you did because you didn’t allow my partner to search you,” Hamm replied.
The lawsuit alleges the search violated several civil rights laws, including lack of due process, unlawful search and seizure and failure to train on the part of the Sheriff’s Office.
“It doesn’t matter what they found in her,” Bratlie said in an interview. “They didn’t have any reason to search her in the first place. ... It’s an insulting and egregious violation of her constitutional rights.”
Torres has criminal convictions for assault and drug possession. Bratlie said he did not know if the deputies knew Torres from previous encounters with law enforcement.