When the police find a plastic baggie full of suspected drugs attached to a man’s penis, does it violate the Fourth Amendment for the police to cut it off with a knife? “Yes,” according to a 2-1 vote of the Fourth Circuit. Judge Keenan wrote the majority opinion in United States v. Edwards, in which Judge Motz joined. Judge Diaz authored a dissent.
Some snippets from the majority opinion:
As they were looking inside Edwards’ underwear, the officers saw that there was a plastic sandwich baggie tied in a knot around Edwards’ penis. From Bailey’s vantage point and with the assistance of the flashlight beam, Bailey could also see that the sandwich baggie contained smaller blue ziplock baggies, which contained “a white rock-like substance.” Based on his training and experience, Bailey concluded that the baggie and its contents were consistent with the packaging or distribution of a controlled substance.
Upon discovering the sandwich baggie tied around Edwards’ penis, another officer held Edwards’ pants and underwear open while Bailey put on gloves, took a knife that he had in his possession, and cut the sandwich baggie off Edwards’ penis with the knife. After Bailey cut the baggie, he reached into Edwards’ underwear and removed the baggie and its contents. During this procedure, Edwards remained in handcuffs with his hands secured behind his back.
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We conclude that Bailey’s use of a knife in cutting the sandwich baggie off Edwards’ penis posed a significant and an unnecessary risk of injury to Edwards, transgressing well-settled standards of reasonableness. The fortuity that Edwards was not injured in the course of this action does not substantiate its safety.
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Manifestly, in the present case, there were several alternatives available to the officers for removing the baggie from Edwards’ penis, which neither would have compromised the officers’ safety nor the safety of Edwards. These alternatives included untying the baggie, removing it by hand, tearing the baggie, requesting that blunt scissors be brought to the scene to remove the baggie, or removing the baggie by other non-dangerous means in any private, well-lit area. Thus, we conclude that, in the absence of exigent circumstances, the right of the police to seize contraband from inside Edwards’ underwear did not give the officers license to employ a method creating a significant and unnecessary risk of injury.
A cut from Judge Diaz’s dissent:
The majority does not suggest that the officers should have allowed Edwards to remove the contraband himself. But while it posits certain alternatives for seizing it, I fail to see how the majority’s suggestions are any more reasonable than the method chosen by the officers. The first three suggestions—untying, removing, or tearing the baggie—would require that officers physically touch Edwards’ penis. In my view, however, a rule that directs officers to place their hands on a defendant’s genitals as a first option for seizing contraband in a baggie that the defendant has chosen to strap to his penis seems no more attractive than the careful use of a knife. The majority next suggests that officers should have arranged for blunt scissors to be brought to the scene to remove the baggie. But this assumes that the knife actually used was not blunt, whereas the record offers no evidence as to its characteristics. Finally, the majority’s catch-all suggestion that officers should have used “other non-dangerous means in any private, well-lit area,” Maj. Op. at 14, does not specify a method of removal, but instead relies on the location of the search—a Bell factor that the majority explicitly declines to adopt as a basis for its decision. Thus, while criticizing the officers’ use of the knife as unreasonable, the majority has failed to articulate a method of removal that is any more reasonable. On that issue, the majority is in good company, for even Edwards’ counsel conceded at oral argument that there was “no good option” for removal.