Woman left Bleeding after Illegal Cavity Search Files $12.5 Million Claim
A 37-year-old woman who was left bleeding after Phoenix police conducted an illegal cavity search for non-existent drugs has filed a $12.5 million claim against the city, a required step before filing a lawsuit.
“I think I was raped by police officers," Erica Reynolds told doctors on December 27, 2018, the day after she had been detained by Phoenix police. "They did a body cavity search and now I have bleeding."
Doctors noted in their reports that Reynolds had rectal bleeding, according to her claim. And her lawyer says she is experiencing the same debilitating side effects as sexual assault survivors.
But Phoenix police initially claimed they had no record of conducting a cavity search on her.
Reynolds had been a suspect in an 18-month long drug-related investigation conducted by the Phoenix Police Department when she was stopped on December 26, 2018. Detectives say they had intercepted calls between Reynolds and a primary suspect. According to their report, Reynolds agreed to buy drugs.
Under the guise of a traffic violation, Phoenix police officers Jason Hamernick and Aaron Lentz pulled Reynolds over after they caught her meeting with the suspect. They claimed they smelled marijuana.
The male officers requested a female officer to respond to the traffic stop so she could search Reynolds. After the 20-year veteran Timaree Murphy could not find any drugs on Reynolds at the scene, she was taken to a police station for further searching.
Lentz told Murphy, "There's one other place it could be that we need to check,” according to the internal affairs report completed in February and acquired by the Arizona Republic.
That same month, Reynolds filed her first records request for reports and documents related to her December arrest.
According to department policy, an officer can only do a strip search with a warrant or the person's consent. Any physical intrusion also requires either a warrant or consent and needs to be performed by a medical doctor.
Murphy never secured any of the requirements for the illegal body search that led to Reynolds bleeding and feeling violated.
“Officer Murphy told PSB investigators she did not obtain a Search Warrant or consent prior to conducing [sic] the body cavity search.” the internal investigation stated. “Office Murphy also stated she does not have any medical training related to conducting body cavity searches.”
Murphy claimed she attempted to clarify what additional search needed to be conducted but stated she could not remember what Lentz said exactly. Regardless, Murphy said she was led to believe he was referring to a body cavity search.
Even when Murphy initially refused, allegedly telling Lentz they are not allowed to do that type of search, the internal investigation reported “Lentz assured her they have done that type of search in the past.”
If Lentz was known to conduct illegal body searches, it would not be the first or only crime he has been accused of committing.
Lentz was one of three active cops indicted in 2010, accused of stealing thousands of dollars for work they did not perform as off-duty security officers at a low-income housing complex in an investigation that lasted two years.
Drenth was one of the officers with indictment looming over his head when his body was found bloody and lifeless 40 minutes after having spoken to Lentz. Drenth’s death was ruled a suicide, but many officials do not agree. A grand jury declined to convict Lentz and the other cops.
The internal investigation for Reynold’s body search is comprised of interviews with Officer Murphy months after the alleged incident with Reynolds occured.
In a holding cell at the police station, Reynolds was forced to strip naked, squat and cough. Even when nothing was found, the officers insisted on searching further.
It did not matter that Reynolds refused their body cavity search, Officer Hamernick told her, “we can and we will.”
She was released to her daughter that night.
When Reynolds asked her daughter to take her to the hospital the next day, suffering from trauma, pain and bleeding from the night before, she told the doctors she had been raped by Phoenix police by an illegal cavity search that left her bleeding.
“[Reynolds] is exhibiting all of the same side effects as every other sexual assault survivor," Reynolds’ attorney Heather Hamel said in an interview with ABC15. “She has all of the same trauma, all of the same anxieties, all of the same fears.”
Despite the supposedly necessary extensive body search and Reynolds later admitting she planned on buying and selling drugs, Phoenix police have yet to charge her with anything.
On June 24, Reynolds filed a notice of claim, the step taken before a lawsuit is filed, at Phoenix City Hall. In her notice, Reynolds described her sexual assault and claimed the police department told her there were no records of her December arrest.
The claim states a city employee "failed to document, scan or otherwise log the first" public records request, which is a violation of Arizona law.
The department says the reason they struggle to respond to records requests is due to a lack of staff to process them.
Coincidentally though, just one day after Reynolds called out the department in the $12.5 million notice her lawyer filed, the city’s police department released over 100 pages worth of drug-trafficking reports to news outlets on June 25. The report listed dozens of suspects, including Reynolds.
The internal affairs report concluded Murphy violated the “inappropriate use of police powers, authority, and privileges” department policy.
The department also issued a statement affirming Murphy was suspended, but did not specify for how long. They decided against disclosing why none of the other officers involved were investigated too.
“These officers are still out on the street," Hamel said. "They are still conducting investigations, they are still authorized to conduct searches. That should make every member of the public really terrified about what a potential interaction with a Phoenix police officer would look like.”
Reynolds said she was not even aware Murphy had been reprimanded, let alone police investigated her complaint.
However, a Phoenix police spokeswoman wrote in an email that Reynolds' "representatives have received reports related to [the illegal body search]” and as "additional reports become available," they will be released.