Drug War Enables Police Roadside Sexual Assault

A close-up photo of police lights by night
A close-up photo of police lights by night

It's a story so awful that even though my job involves constantly reading news about drug war atrocities, I avoided this one for days.

Charnesia Corley has come forward about an incident that happened to her in June. The 21-yr-old black woman from Houston, Texas was driving in her car one evening, when she was pulled over by a Harris County Sheriff's deputy for allegedly running a stop sign. The officer claimed that he smelled marijuana in Ms. Corley's car.

The mere suspicion of marijuana was enough to provoke a thorough search of the woman's car and, when nothing was found, Ms. Corley was subjected to a horrific and humiliating roadside body cavity search, while being held down by two police officers. As Corley described, "They sexually assaulted, raped me and molested me."

Everything about this is revolting. It is chilling to think that a police officer's "Spidey sense" is enough to result in being subjected to violent public sexual degradation. Meanwhile, this is happening at a time when outrage over police misconduct and a deep-rooted culture of racial bias is at profound levels of intensity.

Ms. Corley's nightmare is, unfortunately, not an isolated incident. Cases like this illustrate the police terror that inspired the emergence of the Movement for Black Lives and the racism and rampant abuse of power enabled by the war on drugs.

As Radley Balko reported in the Washington Post, there have been a number of these cases. So many that the Texas legislature was shamed into passing a law that's supposed to prohibit such searches without a warrant. However, that law doesn't take effect until next month. Balko writes, "That the state would need such a law in the first place speaks volumes."

In May, Jacob Sullum did a piece for Forbes, "The War On Drugs Now Features Roadside Sexual Assaults By Cops." He cited three women in Texas with experiences very similar to Ms. Corley's. In all of these cases, suspected marijuana use was the provocation for invasive roadside body cavity searches.

The revolting scenarios are not confined to Texas. In 2013, a scandal emerged from New Mexico, where a traffic stop resulted in a man being subjected to a 14-hour ordeal and forcible search of his anus. The man's lawyer called it "essentially medical anal rape." Again, the provocation was suspicion of drugs.

A quick internet scan of news stories by an intern in our office turned up dozens of cases in the media, spanning twelve states across the country including one in 2007 filed by Eric Garner against the NYPD for a public body cavity search without a warrant.

The drug war is rife with stories of human rights and civil liberties violations. Suspecting someone of drug use is routinely used as justification for stripping people of their dignity, privacy and basic humanity. And none of this viciousness has any proven evidence of reducing the drug trade or drug addiction and misuse.

In order to combat abuse of power and excessive force, we have to put an end to the drug war, as it is a fundamental buttress propping up the madness. Marijuana legalization is an important step in this process and will help move us along the path to right-sizing our inflated, destructive and ineffective criminal justice system.

As far as Ms. Corley's situation goes, I hope that she is able to recover from the horror she has endured. And I hope you join the Drug Policy Alliance by signing thisaction demanding that Texas Governor Greg Abbott launch a full investigation into the officers who sexually assaulted Charnesia Corley while searching her for marijuana.

Sharda Sekaran is the managing director of communications for the Drug Policy Alliance.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.