Even though it is frequently the subject of jokes in fictional media, a body cavity search is a very specific tool law enforcement uses to find contraband. This can include searching the oral, rectal, and anal cavities, the digestive system, sexual organs, ears, and nostrils.

A search like this is not a comfortable experience, and it should only be done by law enforcement personnel with the proper training and only under legal circumstances. Here is a look at the circumstances under which a body cavity search may be conducted.

Where Can Body Cavity Searches Be Performed?

In a body cavity search, the police or other authorities visually or manually inspect a person’s body orifices and cavities for evidence of a crime. The invasive nature of such procedures has led to various laws and regulations regarding how they can be performed. Body cavity searches commonly occur in locations involving:

  • Search Warrants: Police need a search warrant to conduct any kind of a search when a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. A search warrant will often specify whether a body cavity search is required.
  • Airports and International Borders: Body cavity searches are often performed by police, TSA agents, and other authorities at airports and international borders. Generally, authorities do not need a search warrant to conduct a body cavity search at a border, as long as they reasonably suspect criminal activity.
  • Jails and Prisons: Body cavity inspections typically occur when an inmate is admitted to the facility. They may also take place in connection with criminal investigations at the facility.

Evidence seized as a result of an improper or unreasonable body cavity search is subject to exclusionary principles (i.e., the evidence will be excluded from the evidence record at trial).
Prisons and other types of detention facilities are by far the most common places where body cavity searches are conducted. Inmates can conceal objects in areas of their bodies that a regular pat-down would not detect, so as a precaution, this tactic is used for verification purposes. Inmates are subjected to a body cavity search whenever they are taken outside of the facility or when an officer suspects contraband is present. It is usually conducted in a semi-private setting to reduce embarrassment.

Regarding the specifics of the search, it is usually conducted under very structured guidelines. In order to obtain an unobstructed view of every part of the suspect’s body after every piece of clothing has been removed, the suspect will be asked to turn and pose at various angles. It may include lifting certain body parts, twisting in reasonable positions, or bending in certain ways to enhance the searcher’s view. According to the inspector’s orders, the suspect will spread each orifice, and if the results are inconclusive, the process will be repeated. The authority may also ask the suspect to cough or perform other actions that would reveal the presence of contraband, but the inspector is not allowed to touch the suspect during the search.

Who Can Be Present at a Body Cavity Search?

As well as these body search locations, the search must take place in an area that is private and does not expose the person to public scrutiny. Other police or inspection agents should not be present during a body cavity search if they are not needed or are not participating in the search. Strict medical sanitation standards must be observed. A trained physician typically conducts more intrusive manual searches as well.

There can only be a limited number of people present at a body cavity search. Occasionally, when a suspect being searched wishes for a specific person to be present during the search, the authorities will allow that person to attend.

Procedure

Contraband articles can often be concealed in body cavities, such as the rectum. Many illegal drugs are found in condoms and stowed in the colon, and cylinders such as Cigar Tubes are used to hide money, intravenous syringes, and knives. For example, duplicate handcuff keys could be hidden in the nasal passages or under the tongue.

To perform a thorough visual body cavity search, a flashlight is used to illuminate common body parts, such as the nostrils, ears, mouth, navel, penis (urethra and foreskin), and buttocks. As part of the examination, detainees are generally required to cooperate with manipulating these body parts.

Standing over a mirror (so that the observer has a better view) is sometimes required, while squatting is sometimes instructed during the visual search. The person may be instructed to “squat and cough” in order to dislodge an object lodged in the rectum or vagina.

Hands-on body cavity searches involve temporarily transferring an inmate to an off-site clinic to be examined by a licensed physician of the same sex; body orifices are probed with fingers or instruments. These inspections are often restricted to individuals who refuse to consent to a visual body cavity search because of anxiety or in situations where there is a strong suspicion of contraband and require a court order.

It has become fairly normal for authorities to isolate individuals in a monitored environment instead until they pass urine or to x-ray the individual’s pelvic area as it is less invasive and psychologically damaging than cavity searches. As cavity searches cannot detect objects in the stomach or intestines, it is inherently humiliating and degrading.

What Is a “Non-Routine” Body Cavity Search?

A non-routine body cavity search is one that is not normally conducted based on the set of circumstances and facts of the situation. A cursory search of the body cavity of an inmate being admitted to prison, jail, or psychiatric ward would be considered a “routine” search. A search warrant is usually not required for a routine body cavity search.

In contrast, a body cavity search of a person entering a department store, school, or other similar institution is not considered routine. Performing non-routine body cavity searches in such places will likely require a search warrant.

What Is the Legal Standing of Body Cavity Searches?

According to some inmates and human rights activists, body cavity searches aren’t so much conducted to stop the flow of contraband as they are to harass and humiliate detainees. Objects buried deep inside the rectum will not be visible to the naked eye. It is also possible to circumvent detection during manual body cavity searches.

Suspects sometimes swallow packages of drugs protected by condoms and allow them to pass through their digestive tracts. Diagnostic imaging will reveal the concealed contraband, invalidating the body cavity search. In light of the fact that visual and manual body cavity searches are highly invasive and greatly compromise an individual’s right to privacy, their legality is often contested.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Body Cavity Search Issues?

The search of body cavities is a very specific type of search that can only be conducted under very strict conditions. You may wish to hire a criminal lawyer if you believe that your rights have been violated during a body cavity search. An attorney can educate you about your rights. Moreover, your lawyer can represent you in court if you need to attend a trial hearing or another formal court proceeding.