The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota on Wednesday sued the Rock County Sheriff and two deputies who tried to forcibly conduct a vaginal search on the side of a public road in below-freezing temperatures.
The ACLU-MN filed Kelli Jo Torres v. Dallas Hamm et al. in U.S. District Court in Minnesota on Wednesday. The lawsuit names Rock County Deputies Dallas Hamm and Shelley Douty, Sheriff Evan Verbrugge and the county for violating the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as state law.
In November of 2018, Deputy Hamm pulled a driver over in Luverne for a dangling air freshener. He searched the driver without probable cause, then turned to passenger Kelli Torres. Deputies Hamm and Douty directed Kelli to stand next to Hamm’s squad car, without her coat, outside of the dash-cam’s view. It was 9 degrees out.
For more than 30 minutes, the two deputies yelled at her and tried to perform a vaginal search on the I-90 on-ramp – even though federal law prohibits strip searches and body cavity searches of people detained for traffic offenses without probable cause. Deputies had none, the lawsuit said.
On dash-cam audio, Kelli refused to take part in the illegal cavity search on the roadside at least 25 times. She told deputies she was wearing only leggings without underwear and felt violated.
“I’d appreciate if it you wouldn’t put your hands all up in me,” Kelli said, telling the deputies, “I don’t think you can do that to me” and that “it feels like you’re grabbing my crotch.”
Kelli begged them repeatedly to take her into the station or hospital to search her “the right way.” Deputies ignored her repeated pleas for basic dignity. Instead, Deputy Hamm offered to shine a flashlight on Kelli’s vagina to aid the search. He told her because she refused to consent to the search, she couldn’t get into the police car to warm up, at one point telling her that she had lost her privilege to be warm. The Rock County Attorney’s office later dismissed any charges against her.
“It’s disturbing to me that I was on the side of an interstate like that,” Kelli Torres said, adding she hopes the deputies get fired to prevent this from happening to other women. “I feel very violated by the whole situation. I repeatedly asked them to do the right thing. It makes me not trust law enforcement.”
“The action by Rock County’s deputies clearly shows that Kelli Torres’ dignity did not matter, and they believed they could treat her however they wanted in violation of the Fourth Amendment,” said ACLU-MN staff attorney Ian Bratlie. “They used a dangling air freshener as an excuse for stopping the vehicle and had no excuse to search the passenger, let alone conduct a body cavity search on the side of a public road in below-freezing temperatures. This conduct is shameful, and must be greeted with training, discipline and policy changes to avoid this situation in the future.”
The ACLU-MN is asking the court to find the defendants’ conduct – including the lack of training and supervision – violated the law; to award Kelli Torres damages; and to prevent future unlawful conduct and retaliation against her.
View and download the dash-cam video at: https://youtu.be/mo_9Y81OSVU.