What is a Body Cavity Search?

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The last time you went on vacation with your friends, you likely joked about who was going to get a body cavity search. But the truth is, a body cavity search is a very real, very invasive search tactic, and you better hope you are never subject to one.

A Body cavity search is a search performed by qualified law personnel. It typically involves the search of the mouth, vaginal, or rectal cavities. In extreme cases, it may even include a search of the digestive tract, ears, and nostrils.

If you are curious to learn more about what a body cavity search is, read on because this is something it’s better to know about before you are subject to one.

What is a Body Cavity Search?

A body cavity search is a type of search performed by law enforcement when they believe an individual is hiding something in one of their body cavities. While most people think it just includes the anal cavity, it can include pretty much any cavity in your body, including the sexual organs and digestive tract.

Although you are probably already aware that these searches are uncomfortable, you need to know that they can also be dangerous and should only be performed by trained law enforcement personnel. They also may only occur in certain situations and certain locations. You should never be scared of randomly being required to be subject to a body cavity search.

When Can I Be Subject to a Body Cavity Search?

Despite common belief, you cannot just be forced to undergo a body cavity search just because. Rather you must be in a certain situation or location, such as those listed below.

Because of a Search Warrant

Surprisingly, your body cavities are protected by the 4th amendment just as your home is. This means the government can never search your body cavities just because. First, they must acquire a search warrant allowing them to do so.

The search warrant must be signed by a judge, and the judge must agree that the police have a reason to search you. This reason must be backed up with proof and evidence that there is something for them to find in one of your body cavities. It is very difficult to get a judge to approve a cavity search because these procedures are extremely evasive. Therefore you don’t have to worry about undergoing one because a police officer has a hunch.

At the US Border

While a warrant is typically necessary, at the US border or a port of entry, some of these rules go completely out the window. This means you can be cavity searched without a warrant in these locations.

So your joke about being cavity searched at the airport isn’t too far off, but you can rest easy knowing you won’t be cavity searched on your way from Phoenix to Denver, as these searches are only legal at the country's borders.

But, do note that a TSA agent or a border control agent can legally execute these searches if they are suspicious. This creates a legal gray area where there is a possibility you could be cavity searched by TSA, but likely only if you are entering or leaving the country.

When You Go to Jail

Okay, this one should be obvious, but if you are being incarcerated for a crime, the correction officers at the facility where you will be incarcerated can execute a body cavity search at any time. In fact, you can expect one when you are first admitted to prison and are given your first set of clothes to wear during your incarceration.

This is done to prevent contraband from entering the prison, and there is usually no way out of it.

Can You Argue Against a Body Cavity Search?

Unfortunately, when you are in one of the above situations, it is extremely difficult to argue against a body cavity search. There is no age or gender restriction on body cavity searches, and you cannot use this to argue against one. Your only chance in doing so is if you can get the body cavity search deemed as unreasonable.

Before you get too excited, there are very few body cavity searches that are deemed “unreasonable,” and usually, if the officer already has a warrant, there is no way out of it. But in a recent case in New Mexico, a man was subject to a body cavity search as a result of a traffic violation, and he was able to get his body cavity search (a colonoscopy) labeled as illegal due to being unreasonable.

There are some cases of body cavity searches being thrown out as evidence if a member of the individual's same gender wasn’t present in the room during the search. But, other than this, even if you believe it is against your religious practices, there isn’t much you can do to stop a body cavity search backed by a search warrant.

If you do believe you were subject to an illegal body cavity search, then you should contact a lawyer as soon as possible so they can review your case and decide if the search was indeed warranted.

Is a Body Cavity Search the Same as a Strip Search?

A body cavity search and a strip search aren’t the same things. In a strip search, a suspect is required to remove their clothing and bend or move certain ways at the direction of the searching officer. Sometimes they may be required to cough or perform other actions on request, but no matter what, the suspect cannot have any part of his or her interior inspected by camera, hand, or another tool.

There are two types of body cavity searches:

Visual Body Cavity Search

This is the type of body cavity search most often confused for a strip search. In this instance, the individual must remove their clothes, and the law enforcement officer will look in their body cavities using a flashlight. The flashlight will not enter any of the cavities, nor will the officer insert a hand or other tool into any of the cavities.

This type of body cavity search typically only involves the nostrils, ears, mouth, penis, vagina, or rectum, though sometimes an individual can be required to undergo X-rays as part of a visual body cavity search.

Manual Body Cavity Search

A manual body cavity search starts off similar to the visual body cavity search, but in this instance, the law enforcement officer or individual performing the test is allowed to insert a finger or hand into the cavities of the body to search for contraband.

This type of cavity search can be undergone on any body cavity. For these searches, things like a colposcopy or enema can also be ordered if it is suspected that the individual has hidden contraband in a cavity out of reach of the individual performing the test.

Your Rights During a Body Cavity Search

Although there isn’t much you can do to stop a court-ordered body cavity search, you do have some basic rights as you undergo the procedure.

First and foremost, you are allowed privacy. This means the body cavity search must occur in an area away from uninvolved people, such as a private room with curtains over the window.

Second, you are allowed to have a member of your same-sex present for the search. This means if you are female, and all the officers performing the search are male, they must find another female before the search can begin. If you are transgender, a member of the gender you request can be present in the room. The officers should ask which you prefer before the search begins.

Third, the officer performing the body cavity search must be your same gender unless the procedure is being performed by a doctor, in this case, you are still allowed to have a member of your same gender in the room, but the person performing the test can be of the opposite gender.

Additionally, the rules of body cavity searches state that every effort to protect modesty will be made. Take this with a grain of salt, however, because there really isn’t any way to protect your modesty when a border patrol officer is taking a look inside your rear end. But this does mean they will do their best to make you feel less exposed.

If you were not afforded the above rights, then there is a possibility that your body cavity search was done illegally. You will need to contact a lawyer to review your case to be sure.

Can Pregnant Women Be Subject to a Body Cavity Search?

Despite common belief, pregnant women can be subject to a body cavity search. While they will likely only be subject to a visual one for safety reasons, they can be subject to a manual search, and if selected or ordered by a warrant, they must comply.

Reference Legal Explanations

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  • "What is a Body Cavity Search?". Legal Explanations. Accessed on February 8, 2023. https://legal-explanations.com/blog/what-is-a-body-cavity-search/.

  • "What is a Body Cavity Search?". Legal Explanations, https://legal-explanations.com/blog/what-is-a-body-cavity-search/. Accessed 8 February, 2023

  • What is a Body Cavity Search?. Legal Explanations. Retrieved from https://legal-explanations.com/blog/what-is-a-body-cavity-search/.