Put down that gun, I mean knife . . . I mean, TAKE OFF THAT BRA!

I used to believe that I had little to fear from woman’s lingerie. I just learned (indirectly from the York Regional police) that I’m mistaken. I’m glad I learned this information before I met a horrific fate.

Police constable Jennifer Martin, who was testifying in an impaired driving case, stated that she asked the suspect (Sang Eun Lee – pictured on the left) to remove her underwire bra over concerns that it could be used as a weapon.

Really?

It started with a pat down search of Lee, following her arrest. The search revealed an underwire bra (that must have been quite a surprise to Martin . Imagine, a woman wearing an underwire bra!).

Lee was asked to remove the bra, which she did after removing her coat and sweater and exposing her breasts. Martin turned the bra over to her supervisor, and it was returned to Lee later.

According to Martin’s un-named supervisor, it is standard practice to have female officers require all accused woman to remove their underwire bras. Why? Martin gave two reasons:

(1)     Martin has “heard” of examples of “accused persons trying to kill themselves with their bras,” and

(2)     The wire can also be removed and used to damage police holding cells and is a risk to officer safety, she said.

I’ll buy that suspects can use their garments to hang themselves.  And I get that officers have to be alert when it comes to officer safety. But was taking Lee’s bra, in these circumstances, necessary? Or is this a case of a police officer conducting an unreasonable search?

Was the search reasonable?

Lee was under arrest, and therefore subject to a police search. Police have the right to conduct a reasonable search of someone who’s “in custody.” That makes sense. Police don’t want to have someone in the police car with them if that person is carrying a gun or a knife or an ice pick.

I don’t have a problem with the police conducting a “pat down” of someone they’ve arrested. But the search in this case went much further than a pat down. This search involved having Lee remove her clothing and exposing her breasts.

What’s “reasonable” varies on a case by case basis. Strip searches may be reasonable in some circumstances (for instance to find drugs, which some suspects have concealed in body cavities). And obviously violent suspects will be subjected to a more vigorous and thorough search than other suspects (more than just a mere pat down).

Lee was arrested for impaired driving, not a crime of violence. It wasn’t likely that she had a cocktail concealed in a body cavity. Was having her remove her bra, exposing her breasts reasonable in this case?

Seizing items dangerous to the suspect:

Constable Martin is correct when she says that some people harm themselves with their clothing, for instance people have hanged themselves with their shoelaces. In this case Martin said that she was concerned because Lee was distraught during the booking process, and she was impaired.

I’d argue most people (who aren’t used to being arrested) are upset when they get arrested. That’s more the norm rather than the exception. So was Lee more distraught than normal? Should her bra have been taken from her to protect her from herself?

When Leora Shemesh (Lee’s lawyer) challenged Martin to “find one occurrence involving someone attempting to hang themselves with an underwire bra,” Martin replied:

“I don’t know specifically. I know people have tried to hang themselves with their clothes.”

But if Martin was that concerned, why not take all of Lee’s clothes. Why just have Lee remove her bra?

There’s no mention of Lee being detained past the booking process. There’s no mention of her being placed on a “suicide watch,” It doesn’t appear that the bra was taken to prevent Lee from causing harm to herself, because there doesn’t appear to be any indiction of that, which leads us to the final question:

Did the “underwire bra” pose a real threat to the officer?

Every circumstance is unique, and I don’t argue that there are cases where the wire from an underwire bra could be used as a weapon.

Where?

Take the example of  Barbara Amile, Conrad Black’s wife. When she went to visit Black in a Florida correctional complex, she had to remove the wire from her bra. That makes sense to me. Correctional institutions have to control what comes in, and there’s a very real potential that an inmate could fashion a weapon from the wire. But what about in this case?

There’s no indication that Lee had a record of violence. There’s no indication that she was violent towards the officer. She wasn’t being arrested for a violent crime.

There is nothing to suggest that the underwire bra posed any threat to the officer whatsoever.

The police have a tough job, and it can be a dangerous job. They need to be cautious.

They have the authority to search people, but it is not an absolute authority.

There are rules that govern the conduct of the police and how the police do their job, and that includes how police search individuals. Searches must be authorized by law, and they must be reasonable in the circumstances.

In these circumstances, Lee’s lawyer argues that the search was not reasonable. She’s asking that the charges against her client be dismissed. That’s the only real remedy available to Lee, and that remedy serves to protect society from unauthorized police activity. If the police were allowed to illegally search people, and convictions followed those searches, there’d be nothing stopping the police from regularly conducting unreasonable searches.

But what do you think?

Should the police have the right to ask a woman to remove her clothing and seize an underwire bra in cases where there is no suspicion of violence?

And if the search was not reasonable in the circumstances, should the charges leading to the arrest and search be dismissed?

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5 Responses to “Put down that gun, I mean knife . . . I mean, TAKE OFF THAT BRA!”

  1. Ray says:

    I don’t think the problem is with the unreasonable search. I think the problem would be when/if a person does commit suicide and/or cause themselves grevious bodily harm with their “bra wire”. If that were to happen, then the public would be yet again poking at the police, asking why they don’t practice better frisk searching methods, and that we should have predicted this and therefore prevented it. Either way, the police end up being mocked and/or ridiculed for doing something that was not overly intrusive or inconvenient in the first place.

    In the end the Constable was thinking proactively and I highly doubt her intentions were to perform undue searching technique in attempt to…inconvenience the prisoner? stress out the prisoner? embarrass the prisoner? howabout the fact that the prisoners well-being appears to be the officers first concern?

  2. Mark says:

    I agree with some of what you’ve said. The police have a tough job, and they are subject to public scrutiny. But that’s the way it should be. We want the police to be accountable for their actions.

    I have no problem with the police taking steps to protect themselves, and to protect someone who could be a danger to themselves. But in this case, neither officer safety nor the safety of Lee seems to be of concern. IF Lee was really a danger to herself, why not detain her? (In other words, hold her in custody because the danger she posed to herself is just to great to release her). But that doesn’t appear to be the case. Lee was released. That shows that the officer had no concerns that she was a danger to herself.

    I disagree with your comment that the search was not “overly intrusive”. Lee had to remove her clothing in order to take off her bra. For what? A driving charge. C’mon. You really think that’s appropriate where there is no indication of danger to the officer and no indication of Lee posing a threat to herself?

    I don’t know what the officers intentions were, and neither do you. Maybe here intentions were in the right place. Maybe they weren’t.

    We give police officers a lot of power, but it’s limited power. We don’t give them the power to order people to remove pieces of clothing just for fun. And yes, there are officers who do things to shame people, to embarrass people, to stress them out. Most of the time that type of officer (and I believe that it is a very small percentage of police officers who fall into this category) is doing something to “teach the person a lesson”. But that’s not their job. Once a person is detained for a suspected infraction their job is to investigate it and present evidence to the court if required. Not to teach people a lesson.

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  5. M Overton says:

    More police officers are killed in traffic stops than in almost any other circumstance. The last stats I saw, (a while ago, admittedly, but) the only thing more dangerous was family fights. Also, particularly with people whose cultures are those of “shame” versus “guilt,” suicide for ANY jail/arrest, or even the appearance of such, is not all that unusual.

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