Eckert v City of Deming et al: A Study in the Violation of Civil Liberties

Michael GrossmanNovember 02, 2016 7 minutes

It's sometimes easy to take for granted the freedoms we have as American citizens. I'm not necessarily talking fireworks-and-bald-eagles-grade freedoms, but the more subtle permissions and entitlements we enjoy. Our right to speak our minds is federally protected, as is our right to arm ourselves. Thanks to the Bill of Rights' guarantees of certain civil liberties, we're also protected from egregious abuse of power by authority figures...right?

Usually, yes. In the majority of cases, law enforcement officers operate within allowed parameters while performing their duties. They're carefully trained and monitored to make sure that they exercise their power as upholders of law within the limitations of that same law. The nation is fraught with examples of this system gone awry in 2016, but today I want to look at a particular example from a little further in the past.

In early 2013, law enforcement officers stopped 54-year-old David Eckert in Hidalgo County, New Mexico for a traffic violation. Instead of simply being issued a citation for running a stop sign, Eckert was detained and subjected to to a series of invasive cavity searches and enemas in an ultimately-fruitless search for drugs hidden inside his body. He subsequently sued Hidalgo County for the officers' flagrant violations of his Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. The two sides settled for $1.6 million. The agreement was reached in December of 2013, almost a year after his ordeal.

12 Hours of Hell: Case Specifics

Eckert's original traffic stop occurred in January of 2013. According to a police affidavit, his 1998 Dodge pickup was pulled over by an officer from the city of Deming. The original intent was simply to issue Eckert a citation for improperly stopping at a posted sign.

Upon engaging Eckert, the officer stated that he avoided eye contact and his hands were shaking slightly. The officer also noted Eckert's posture was "erect, (with) his legs together." Apparently interpreting the motorist's nerves as grounds for reasonable suspiction, the officer obtained Eckert's consent to search his person and his vehicle.

A K-9 unit was brought to the scene, and the dog subsequently detected a "hot spot" in the driver's seat of the Dodge. No drugs were found upon searching, but the K-9 officer stated that Eckert had previously been arrested several times on drug possession charges, and was known to hide drugs in his rectum. Records do acknowledge several arrests for possession, but in most of those instances the charges were dropped.

On the strength of the K-9 officer's allegation, police felt they had enough cause to place Eckert in "investigative detention." He waited there while a warrant was obtained from the county judge to search his person, "(including) but not limited to his anal cavity."

Warrant in hand, the officers transported Eckert to nearby Gila Regional Medical Center, where a battery of scans and inspections found no drugs. Two different doctors performed digital cavity searches during this period, and an X-ray was taken of his abdomen. Eckert's stool was also inspected by a doctor for evidence of drugs. All results were negative.

Frustrated and empowered by the warrant, authorities then ordered three enemas performed on Eckert. All enemas were conducted after 10:20 p.m. on the day of his initial traffic stop. A chest X-ray was also ordered, followed by a colonoscopy at approximately 1:25 a.m. Once again, all conducted tests were negative for any drugs on Eckert's person.

The ordeal lasted approximately 12 hours from start to finish, and by the time the multiple invasions of the suspect's privacy were finished, no evidence of drugs had been found.

What Was Wrong with This Situation?

Some might argue that while the measures taken do seem extreme, the involved authorities were just exercising all available options to try and catch a criminal. That is an exceptionally charitable attitude, but I suppose I would agree to the extent that it's important to maintain faith in the system as a whole. Here, though, the conduct of the investigating parties was out of line with the rules of their appointment:

  • Using Eckert's apparent nerves as a pretext for further action, officers then essentially committed to finding drugs "no matter what." Really, though--hasn't anyone else ever been nervous during a traffic stop? I know I have. Despite it being a fairly minor ordeal, it's not unusual at all to somehow feel as though the hammer of justice is about to be dropped square on your head. I've heard this feeling is called false conscience, and derives from an increased sense of personal guilt when confronted by authority figures.

    It's also worth noting again that Eckert had a documented history of drug arrests, and even if the charges were dropped later, that still means he'd had a few run-ins with police, so seeing more of them probably made him jittery. While probable cause standards are flexible, and an officer's intuition based on observed behaviors can qualify as reasonable suspicion, this still seems like a questionable place to start.

  • While the K-9 did sniff out a spot in the vehicle that may have had drugs on it at some point, none were found during the search of the vehicle. Based then upon the recollections of a K-9 officer at the scene, Eckert, who was not in possession of any drugs that could be discerned by a dog trained to find them, was detained for the purpose of further and far more invasive inspection. His detention was based on past infractions, not any evidence of possession at the time. That's like someone seeing me eat a tuna sandwich once and refusing to believe I eat anything but tuna sandwiches because of that.
  • The judge granted a warrant to investigators that was too broad in its language, and was therefore argued by the plaintiff's attorney to be invalid. The attorney maintained that a chest X-ray and colonoscopy fell outside the area where the drugs were allegedly secreted. While the warrant did provide for inspection of areas "not limited to the anal cavity," that should not be interpreted to mean that everything is fair game. It is difficult to comprehend why authorities felt the need to issue so many separate invasive procedures after failing to locate drugs over a period of hours; that quote about "the definition of insanity" seems applicable. By the time they got desperate enough to start trying to find drugs in Eckert's lungs, it might have been time to start scraping egg off their faces.
  • New Mexico state law dictates that issued search warrants, unless specifically authorized otherwise, are effective only between the hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. At officers' behest, doctors performed all three enemas, the chest X-ray, and the colonoscopy after the 10 p.m. cutoff. Even if any of this extensive internal investigation had turned up results, they would have been rendered invalid due to their performance outside the permitted scope of the warrant.
  • The doctors' compliance with these repeated procedures seems a little suspect as well. Called "unethical" by Eckert's attorney, they performed their duties as ordered by the county, but by the third enema, couldn't a trained professional have suggested that there would be nothing left to find? Did a Hippocratic brow not raise questioningly when the X-ray was ordered? It appears not, and why would it? The doctors' time and the procedures were likely billable in full to the county, and while they were invasive and humiliating to Eckert, none of them demonstrably harmed him in the long term.

Eckert's attorney made several of these compelling arguments and secured compensation for his mistreated client.

Okay, They Messed Up. I Thought You Can't Sue the Government, Though!

When we talk about that belief, we're referring to sovereign immunity, a doctrine that traditionally shields government entities from lawsuits. While there are statutory exceptions that vary slightly from state to state, generally the government is shielded from legal action in the event that one of its representatives is found liable in a claim. This is not to say they are automatically absolved of responsibility; it only suggests that legal redress cannot be sought against them in court. It's a modified hold-over from English law, where the governing principle was simply "The king can do no wrong." As Mel Brooks once pointed out, "It's good to be the king."

One of the major statutory exceptions that takes priority over claims of sovereign immunity is part of The U.S. Code--more accurately, 42 U.S.C. §1983--commonly referred to as "Section 1983:"

"Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer's judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable."

Quite a mouthful, right? Boiled down a little, Section 1983 states that anyone who deprives another of his or her Constitutionally-protected rights "under the law" is liable for damages done to the injured party. Because the appointed officials of Hidalgo County violated David Eckert's Fourth Amendment right to protection from illegal search and seizure measures, it opened the door for him to seek compensation from the county. It was no doubt a major boost to his claim that no drugs were found despite several exhausting hours of being turned inside-out by doctors.

So What's the Takeaway Here?

Legal precedent gives people some legal recourse if their rights are violated. The common saying "You can't fight City Hall" is mostly on-point, but not airtight, and it's helpful to know that. Knowing and understanding your rights is always critical, but especially so if they are infringed by someone who is attempting to uphold one law by breaking another. Badges have boundaries; nevertheless, examples occasionally show up that illustrate the system is not perfect. When encountering such flaws, it's important for anyone hurt to have recourse for being made whole again. While I wish David Eckert had not suffered such treatment, his story illuminates valuable information for others, and for that, I am grateful to him.

It's also important to remember that our criminal system is heavily weighted towards the guilty. This is because as a society we believe that it is better for guilty people to go free than for innocents to be wrongly imprisoned. I bring this up because many people believe that the police should do whatever it takes to catch an alleged criminal. This attitude is dangerous and taken to its logical extreme results in situations like the one in New Mexico. The police should do everything within their power to catch criminals, but once those avenues are exhausted, the law doesn't permit people to be subject to unreasonable search and seizure.

This may be difficult for many people to accept, and I certainly don't envy the police who have the duty to walk this fine line, but at a certain point, we have to accept that the police did the best they could within the law, but no crime was turned up. Demanding more is a recipe for civil rights violations and an all-powerful government that would destroy the very freedoms it is implemented to protect.