After the Harris County District Attorney's Office dismissed charges against two former sheriff's deputies accused of ordering the search of a woman's vagina for marijuana, the woman's attorney has released the dashboard camera footage of the incident.
William Strong and Ronaldine Pierre were charged with official oppression last June following indictments from a Harris County grand jury after conducting a body-cavity search on 20-year-old Charnesia Corley in a gas-station parking lot.
But on August 4, the DA's office dropped the charges in order to bring the cases before a second grand jury on the same day, and then the second grand jury no-billed the deputies. Assistant District Attorney Natasha Sinclair, chief of the civil rights division, said prosecutors had discovered "significant' new evidence they felt needed to be shown to a new grand jury. But Sinclair declined to say even vaguely what this new evidence was, citing grand-jury secrecy laws that prevent public disclosure of what evidence the grand jury evaluated.
Sam Cammack, Corley's attorney in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the county, called on District Attorney Kim Ogg to appoint a special prosecutor to the case so it can be re-investigated.
"If what those officers did to Ms. Corley is not mistreatment, does not amount to rape, I don’t know what is," Cammack said at a press conference. "It’s disgusting. It’s something that should never happen. This is a women’s rights issue."
Strong pulled Corley over in June 2015 after she allegedly rolled a stop sign. During the stop, one of the deputies claimed he smelled marijuana, and asked Corley if he could search her vehicle. She said yes. He didn't find anything, but was apparently not satisfied. The deputies said they would call female deputies, including Pierre, to perform a search on Corley's person.
It turned into a search of Corley's vagina on the pavement of the Texaco gas station — without a warrant.
Video footage of the stop (viewable here) shows Corley on the ground with her legs spread and knees bent backward, her feet pointing toward her head with her pants appearing to dangle from one shoe. The details of the search are obscured by her car's open door, but her uncomfortable position is unmistakable as the deputy apparently shines a flashlight on her genitals, performing what is referred to in the lawsuit as a "visual strip search."
According to the lawsuit, a female deputy had instructed Corley to pull down her pants; Corley said no, because she wasn't wearing underwear. In her sworn affidavit, Corley says the deputy responded, "So?" After the visual search yielded nothing, Corley claims the deputy then stuck her fingers in her vagina. Deputies claimed they found 0.2 ounces of marijuana — an offense that would not even yield criminal charges anymore under District Attorney Kim Ogg, who instead of prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana possession cases now offers a diversion program.
Former DA Devon Anderson's administration ultimately dismissed the charges against Corley, who was also charged with resisting arrest, apparently for not wanting authorities to violate her in public. “After the trial prosecutor investigated the facts in Ms. Corley’s case,” Anderson's office wrote at the time, “she found that the search was offensive and shocking, and this office immediately dismissed the charges against Ms. Corley.”
Former sheriff Ron Hickman instead supported his deputies, saying they did nothing wrong and that the DA's charges of official oppression against Strong and Pierre were based on little more than "a local news report." Anderson's office quickly shot back, saying the DA's office found Hickman's suggestion "disappointing on many levels" and that it was "spurious and uninformed," saying prosecutors had reviewed a load of evidence before bringing the case to a grand jury.
So it's unclear, then, what so significantly changed that a grand jury decided to no bill the deputies. (The deputy who actually searched her vagina had been no billed already, apparently because she disagreed with the search she was asked to perform, Cammack said.)
Sinclair noted that, before a law went into effect in November 2015 banning warrantless body-cavity searches, this was technically not illegal at the time of the incident. Hickman's successor, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, said in a statement that, today, even if deputies get a warrant for a strip search, they must perform it in a private, appropriate setting.
"I understand and respect the community’s concerns regarding the parking lot search of a female suspect during a June 2015 traffic stop," he said. "I want to be emphatically clear that today’s Harris County Sheriff’s Office is fully committed to ensuring that every resident of our community is treated with dignity and respect, even if they are suspected of committing a crime. We hold the public’s trust as sacred, and we will always strive to be worthy of that trust."
Since criminal charges are no longer pending against the deputies, Gonzalez said they will return to normal duties.
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