'Conduct that Shocks the Conscience': South Dakota Forcibly Catheterizes a Toddler in the Name of the War on Drugs
The state of South Dakota is practicing a form of drug war excess tantamount to torture or sexual assault, according to a pair of federal lawsuits filed by the ACLU on June 28. One suit charges that law enforcement and medical personnel subject drug suspects to forcible catheterization if they refuse to submit to a drug test.
The second suit charges even more outrageous conduct: State social workers and medical personnel subjecting a screaming toddler to the same treatment, in a fruitless bid to bring a child abuse or neglect charge against his mother.
Let's be clear here: We are talking about a person having a plastic tube painfully inserted in his penis without his consent and with the use of whatever physical force is necessary by agents of the state. In the name of enforcing drug laws.
Law enforcement has an incentive to coerce people into consenting to warrantless drug tests, with the realistic threat of forced catheterization, because its state laws punish not just possession of drugs, but having used them. Under the state's "internal possession" or "unlawful ingestion" statutes, testing positive for illicit drugs is a criminal offense.
"Forcible catheterization is painful, physically and emotionally damaging, and deeply degrading," said ACLU of South Dakota executive director Heather Smith in a statement announcing the filings. "Catheterization isn’t the best way to obtain evidence, but it is absolutely the most humiliating. The authorities ordered the catheterization of our clients to satisfy their own sadistic and authoritarian desires to punish. Subjecting anyone to forcible catheterization, especially a toddler, to collect evidence when there are less intrusive means available, is unconscionable."
In the case of the toddler, the ACLU is suing on behalf of Kirsten Hunter of Pierre and her three-year-old son. According to the complaint, their ordeal began on February 23, when police arrived to arrest her live-in boyfriend for failing a probationary drug test. Accompanying the cops was Department of Social Services caseworker Matt Opbroeck, who informed Hunter that she and her children would have to take drug tests, and that if she failed to agree, her two kids would be seized on the spot.
Hunter agreed to take her kids to St. Mary's Avera Hospital to be tested the next day. Here, in the dry language of the legal filing is what happened to her three-year-old, identified as "A.Q.:"
Ms. Hunter was met by [SMA medical staff] and told that she and her children needed to urinate in cups on orders of DSS.
At the time, A.Q., was not toilet-trained and could not produce a sample in a cup.
Even though other methods, such as placing a bag over his penis, would have yielded a urine sample, [SMA medical staff] immediately began to hold him down and to catheterize him.
At the time, [they] did not inform Ms. Hunter of altemative methods of getting a urine sample or explain the risks associated with catheterizing a child.
Ms. Hunter did not know that she could object nor was she given any opportunity to object. Ms. Hunter did not speak with or see a doctor.
A.Q. was catheterized and screamed during the entire procedure.
On information and belief, A.Q. was catheterized with an adult-sized catheter.
Ms. Hunter was humiliated and upset about A.Q.'s catheterization.
A.Q. was injured physically and emotionally.
In the aftermath of the state-sanctioned assault, A.Q. had to be taken to a hospital emergency room in Huron for constipation and pain and discomfort in his penis three days later, and make another emergency room visit to ASM two days after that, when he was diagnosed with a staph infection in his penis.
Hunter and the ACLU are suing DSS caseworker Opbroeck; his bosses, Department of Social Services Secretary Lynn Valenti and DSS Division of Child Protective Services Director Virginia Wieseler; and St. Mary's Avera, Registered Nurse Katie Rochelle, Nurse Practitioner Teresa Cass, and four unnamed SMA medical employees.
The ACLU argues that forcible catheterization of A.Q. violates the Fourth Amendment's proscription against warrantless searches, the Fifth Amendment's right not to be forced to testify against oneself, and the 14th Amendment's due process clause because "it shocks the conscience, it was not medically necessary, and it was not reviewed by a judge." The lawsuit seeks monetary relief as well as declaration that the procedure is unconstitutional.
"The Fourth Amendment guarantees people the right to be free from unreasonable government searches,” said Courtney Bowie, ACLU of South Dakota legal director. "There is nothing reasonable about forcibly catheterizing a child. The Constitution’s purpose is to protect people from government intrusions exactly like this."
There is nothing reasonable about forcibly catheterizing drug defendants either—especially when the only drug use suspected is of marijuana—but the second lawsuit filed by the ACLU alleges the practice is widespread among law enforcement agencies in the state, including repeated allegations of forced catheterizations after the victims have agreed to provide urine samples.
"State agents, including law enforcement officers, in multiple cities and counties in South Dakota have conspired to attempt to rationalize, justify, and illegally forcibly catheterize drug suspects, and illegally coerce drug suspects to provide urine samples by threatening them with illegal forcible catheterization if they will not voluntarily provide a urine sample," the complaint says.
The conspiracy violates the civil rights not only of those subjected to forced catheterization, but those threatened with it, the ACLU argues.
The lawsuit has five plaintiffs, all of whom were subjected to the procedure, and lists 20 unnamed police officers from Pierre, Sisseton, and the Highway Patrol, as well as one named Pierre officer, and the cities of Pierre and Sisseton. The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to stop the practice, as well as "compensatory and punitive damages."