A year after Harris County Sheriff's Office deputies took off a woman's pants in a gas station parking lot to search her vagina for marijuana, a grand jury has indicted two officers for their conduct.
Deputies William Strong and Ronaldine Pierre face one count of official oppression, a misdemeanor offense.
On June 21, 2015, Strong and another deputy pulled over Cornesia Corley for allegedly rolling a stop sign. As we reported last year, one of the officers claimed he smelled marijuana during the stop and ordered 21-year-old Corley to “step into my office” (the back of the police cruiser) as deputies searched her car. They failed to find anything illegal.
But when one of the deputies came back to the police cruiser, he claimed he still smelled marijuana. Corley's attorney, Sam Cammack, told the Houston Press that a deputy told the passenger in her car that “we're gonna find it one way or another.” That's when Strong told Corley the police would have to perform a body cavity search. He called in female deputies to do it — even though police obtained no warrant for the search, which multiple attorneys, law professors and advocates believe was unconstitutional.
Cammack told us Corley said she wasn't wearing any underwear when the female cops ordered her to pull down her pants, and was understandably hesitant to comply because she was in the parking lot of a Texaco gas station. But apparently, this didn't matter to the sheriff's department. Instead, deputies handcuffed Corley and took off her pants themselves. Cammack said deputies, including Pierre, put her on the ground and made her spread her legs while another deputy stuck her fingers in Corley's vagina.
Interestingly, that's the deputy who was not indicted, Cammack said (he thinks the reason is that she was just following orders and said she believed the search was wrong). Strong and Pierre, though, have been suspended for an indefinite amount of time, according to the sheriff's office.
Cammack said the charges were a relief for Corley, but that they are still fighting against Harris County in federal court: Corley has filed a lawsuit alleging a civil rights violation, asking for $15 million in damages.
Last June, though deputies claimed they found .002 ounces of pot during the search, Cammack said the case was tossed because, since the search was unconstitutional, the police had no probable cause to arrest Corley. She was also charged with resisting arrest — apparently for being squeamish about a stranger shoving her hand up her vagina — but that charge was also dropped.
A sheriff's department spokesman did not return a request for comment, and in its obligatory press release, the department said little about the incident — certainly nothing that conveyed an admission that the warrantless cavity search was inappropriate for deputies to perform. Not long after the incident, though, spokesman Thomas Gilliland told Channel 13 that HCSO believes “the deputies did everything as they should."
If that means performing vaginal or anal searches for marijuana during a traffic stop at a gas station —something many experts agree is illegal — then we sure as hell hope none of you get stopped by a Harris County sheriff's deputy.
*Update, July 1, 3:55 p.m.: The sheriff's office has released a more detailed statement and is sticking to its original opinion that the deputies totally did nothing wrong here. Its Internal Affairs Division also agreed at the conclusion of its own investigation that searching a woman's vagina in public was completely warranted, even without a warrant. HCSO claims the indictments are based on media reports and that “rumor, innuendo and sensationalism do not correlate to the facts surrounding Corley’s arrest.” It looks forward to the court's opinion.
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