Searching for safety: Cuffed, armed, and in the back of a squad

No matter whom you're putting in the back seat of your squad car, no matter what the reason or the destination, your safety requires a thorough search of the subject

For the second time in less than six months, a handcuffed subject in the back of a squad car was able to draw a concealed firearm from somewhere on his person and attempt suicide. In the case this week, a Houston-area high school student was reported in critical but stable condition and looks like he may survive after he managed to shoot himself while in custody for his own protection.

Late Thursday, more details emerged. The Associated Press quoted Capt. Jon Moore of the Harris County Precinct 3 constable’s office as saying that a full search wasn’t done because the student was not under arrest and had only been detained at his campus so authorities could get him help.

In the July incident in Jonesboro (Ark.), 21-year-old Chavis Carter — who had been arrested after police learned he had an outstanding arrest warrant related to a drug charge in Mississippi — managed to fatally shoot himself in the head while seated in the back of a police car.

Thorough, Without Exception
I have no interest whatsoever in second-guessing any of the officers involved in either incident, and will comment no further on these cases other than to say that each offers us the reminder to thoroughly search every person you intend to put in the “customer seats” behind you. 

A search is a search, no matter if the individual searched is a hardcore frequent flier you’ve booked six times, a 65-year-old woman whose frail appearance screams “handle with care,” or a 16-year-old kid you’ve been told to transport across town (like a black-and-white taxi service). 

Nobody gets into the car without a thorough search, period.

Although you may have a kid the same age, or maybe a kid who looks like Theodore ‘The Beaver’ Cleaver, officers cannot become complacent or overly-compassionate when dealing with a juvenile.

“Officers are taught to search certain ways to make sure there’s no weapon, even ‘down there’,” said my friend and Police1 colleague Terry Dwyer when I spoke with him about this issue today.

“The U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. vs. Robinson has said that a search incident to arrest is a fairly unqualified search, so you have pretty extensive authority to search,” Dwyer said.

That 1973 decision set the bar for search incident to arrest, stating in part, that “in the case of a lawful custodial arrest a full search of the person is not only an exception to the warrant requirement of the 4th Amendment, but is also a reasonable search under that Amendment.”

Searching for Safety
Even in the event that the person you’re putting in the back of the car is not under arrest, — such as in Houston — it’s a very good idea to say, “Hey, for my safety and for your benefit I’m going to search you before you get into that seat.”

Critics may start screaming that a complainant riding in back and either looking for your suspect or verifying the identity of a detained subject on the street requires no search.

Really? What if said complainant wants to retaliate against their alleged violator from the back of your squad?

We’re not talking here about Stop and Frisk or other hot-button privacy issues — we’re talking about the safety of everyone in that vehicle. If someone is in the back of that roller, there’s a reason for it.

Quite possibly reason enough for a search. 

Two is One, One is None
And when you do the search, get it done.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” Dwyer said.

So what if some individual wants to taunt you with the typical street-speak questioning your sexual orientation? Who cares?

I’m a huge fan of redundancy — two is one, and one is none.

If at all feasible, try to get another officer present when you do your search and then have that officer do a second search. This has the obvious officer-safety benefit of redundant searches, but it also helps ensure your legal CYA as well. 

In the event that you’ve got a concern that conducting a thorough search will result in some sort of a complaint, that second officer can bear witness that nothing untoward occurred during your search.

Big Pants, Big Problems
Okay, I know I said I’d not comment further on either of the two abovementioned news events.

I lied.

It’s been speculated by some that the Houston teen was wearing the still-trendy baggy pants we’ve seen on the streets for the better part of two decades. This video is old, but it hammers home the point that motivated juveniles can secret all manner of weapons in those baggy pants.

Stay safe out there my friends...

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