WASHINGTON – A federal judge ruled yesterday that a D.C. law is unconstitutional for allowing officers to use home search warrants as authorization to search everyone inside. The court also held that even when officers do have authority to search someone, they cannot aggressively probe that person’s buttocks and genitalia in painful and humiliating ways—a practice that has resulted in multiple complaints against D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers in the past few years predominately from Black men.
The decision results from the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia’s lawsuit on behalf of Mbalaminwe Mwimanzi, a 35-year-old man who endured an invasive, humiliating bodily search while he was at a friend’s apartment watching television back in 2019 in the Petworth neighborhood. MPD had a warrant to search the apartment, but not Mr. Mwimanzi. Nonetheless, MPD Officer Joshua Wilson searched Mr. Mwimanzi by reaching into his buttocks through his clothing, pressing hard on his anus, and rubbing and jamming Mr. Mwimanzi’s testicles against Mr. Mwimanzi’s leg multiple times, despite Mr. Mwimanzi’s screams in protest. Mr. Mwimanzi received treatment at Medstar Washington Hospital Center and continued to have pain in his buttocks and groin area long after the search. He also suffered emotional trauma, including anxiety and intrusive thoughts that impacted his work and training. No drugs, drug paraphernalia, or weapons were found on Mr. Mwimanzi, and MPD noted on the “return” slip for the warrant that no drugs or weapons were found in the home.
Officer Wilson initiated the search under a D.C. law and MPD policy providing that warrants to search residences implicitly authorize searches of any person found inside as long as the person could conceal items listed in the warrant on their body. That means if officers have a warrant to search a home for drugs, they can conduct searches for drugs on anyone who happens to be there , including people not named or identified in the warrant. As the court explained, “Such a broad license to search beyond the face of the warrant—at least when no other circumstances tie the person searched to wrongdoing at a residence—runs afoul of the Fourth Amendment.”
The court also reaffirmed that needlessly and forcefully probing someone’s genitalia violates the Fourth Amendment, stating that “On the most basic level, the Court does not see how the type of force Mwimanzi testified to—including fondling and squeezing his testicles against his leg to the point of severe pain—was necessary to effectuate a narcotics search.” “The Court decision leaves no doubt that a person’s mere presence in a home the police have a warrant to search is not the same thing as probable cause, and that’s a victory for basic privacy rights of District residents,” said Michael Perloff, Staff Attorney for the ACLU-D.C. “This decision also makes clear that officers cannot needlessly commit intrusive and degrading searches of people’s most sensitive body parts, an important lesson given MPD’s troubling history of committing just these types of searches, particularly on Black men.”
“I hope this ruling means that other D.C. residents won’t be subjected to the same trauma and humiliation I experienced at the hands of the police officers that are supposed to protect our community,” said Mr. Mwimanzi, who immigrated from Tanzania as a child. “I look forward to the police treating our communities with the respect and dignity we deserve.” This case is the fourth lawsuit the ACLU-DC has brought in recent years that involves an individual MPD officer conducting a sexually invasive search. The first, McComb v. Ross, settled in the spring of 2017 after significant discovery. The second, Horse v. District of Columbia, was filed in June 2017 and alleged improper searches of Inauguration Day protestors after being detained as part of a mass arrest; the case settled last year. The third, Cottingham v. Lojacano, was filed in July 2018 and settled in December 2018. In the Cottingham case, Officer Sean Lojacono, the defendant, was fired by MPD following a lengthy disciplinary process in which testimony revealed that MPD was training its officers to conduct these aggressive searches.
Additional information about the case, Mwimanzi v. Wilson, can be found here.
To speak with Mbalaminwe Mwimanzi or ACLU-DC Staff Attorney Michael Perloff about this case please email firstname.lastname@example.org.