Last September, Jacksonville sheriff’s officers stripped a 45-year-old man on a public road in view of his aunt and others, likely in violation of department policy.
The case — where police went to extraordinary but fruitless lengths to search for cocaine over an alleged $20 drug deal — is now the subject of an internal affairs investigation because of The Tributary’s reporting.
The officers’ actions call into question the reasonableness of their search of Ronnie Reed and whether or not his rights were violated under the Fourth Amendment.
The Sheriff’s Office has refused to comment on the case, citing the open internal investigation spurred by the Tributary’s reporting. Even though prosecutors are set to go to trial next month against Reed, the Sheriff’s Office refused to provide records and body-camera footage, claiming the case was an “active investigation.” The arrest report never mentions that police officers stripped Reed.
The Tributary obtained the body-camera footage from another source familiar with the case, and the videos revealed the willingness of the Jacksonville police and prosecutors to use severe tactics in a run-of-the-mill drug case.
In one of the videos, one cop even bragged that he was glad his field training officer taught him to “be a d-bag.”
The videos raise questions about the Sheriff’s Office’s handling of the case:
- Why did the officer who first approached Ronnie Reed keep his body camera on for just one minute, turning it off while patting Reed down?
- Why did the officers take minimal effort to protect Reed’s privacy? At one point, while an officer strips Reed and touches his genitals, Reed asks his aunt to leave.
- Why did officers arrest Reed after their search uncovered no drugs or money, and why is the State Attorney’s Office still prosecuting him?
- Should the Sheriff’s Office have shielded the names of all the officers in the case, claiming all of the officers, even those in uniform, were undercover?
The case started when an undercover officer went to the parking lot of a Southside Mobil gas station and gave a different man $20 for cocaine. That man walked to Reed and returned to the undercover officer with the drug, according to a police report.
Another officer then detained Reed to search him. Officers didn’t find the $20 or drugs after they looked through Reed’s pockets. Reed held a plastic bag that carried a single can of Heineken. One officer unbuckled Reed’s white pants and dropped them below his buttocks in front of at least six civilians – including a woman Reed called his aunt – to search Reed’s genitals.
Daniel Eisinger, the chief assistant public defender for Palm Beach County, questioned the officer’s decision to strip Reed in view of non-police.
“If they had probable cause [to arrest], which I think arguably they could have, they should have waited … and had him searched at the jail,” said Eisinger, who is familiar with the state statute regarding strip searches. “I think there are many different legal issues here in terms of the police conduct.”
Nellie L. King, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said Reed had a reasonable expectation that his genitals would not be put on public display.
“There appears to have been no urgent need to conduct an invasive and humiliating search,” she wrote in an email. “This outrageous, unwarranted, embarrassing, and futile strip search appears to violate the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and relevant Florida statutes.”
‘He’s clenching hard’
Reed was approached by an officer as he walked on Sandlin Street – between Philips Highway and I-95 behind The Sheik Sandwiches and Subs. He was about 550 feet from the gas station where the original drug deal took place.
The officer who stopped Reed didn’t tell him why. The names of the involved officers were redacted from police reports.
The officer directed Reed to put his hands behind his back and said he was “just checking something.” Reed asked what the officer was checking for. The officer didn’t answer and told Reed to “just relax.” Asked if he had anything illegal on him, Reed said no, according to body camera footage reviewed by The Tributary.
A source familiar with the case provided The Tributary 11 videos, five of which show pieces of Reed’s interaction with police from when he was approached to when he was driven to and dropped off at the jail.
The officer who initially approached Reed turned his camera off less than a minute and a half into his interaction with Reed, likely violating department policy, which requires officers to keep their cameras on until they leave a scene.
A search of Reed’s pockets and belongings revealed a grocery bag with a Heineken can inside and nothing else. The $20 that the man presumably gave to Reed for the cocaine was never found. Next, an officer told Reed they were going to look at his genitals.
The officer moved Reed behind a white Ford Expedition because a woman was standing nearby.
“I don’t want her to look at your genitals, let’s go over here,” the officer said, moving Reed back a couple of feet. “Nothing’s gonna go inside you, alright? But we have to make sure you don’t have anything else.”
Seconds after the officer pulled back Reed’s pants and boxers, the officer said, “He’s clenching hard, he’s got something up there.”
Then, Reed was told to lean forward. He verbally protested but didn’t fight back.
“Listen, bro, you’re doing too much,” Reed said.
“No, I’m not,” the officer responded. “I just told you, Nothing was going to be put inside you.”
“He’s clenching hard; he’s got something up there,” an officer said.
The officers pushed Reed against the SUV, and his pants were pulled down further, which fully exposed his buttocks. He was inspected again by multiple officers as he leaned over the hood.
“That’s up in his ass,” another officer said. No drugs were found, despite the officer’s assertion.
When an officer began to zip Reed’s pants, Reed could be heard saying, “Auntie, back up. Auntie, back up, back up, back up. Please go in the yard, Auntie, please,” while a woman yelled in the background.
As soon as Reed’s pants were back on, the officer turned off his body camera.
‘Why not just handcuff him?’
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s arrest policy says that only correctional officers can perform strip searches.
Reed was arrested on a charge of selling cocaine, which shows that officers believed they had probable cause to arrest Reed before the strip search happened, Eisinger, the Palm Beach County attorney, said. No drugs were found in Reed’s rectum, and Reed was never charged with possession.
“Why not just handcuff him? Bring him to the police station, right? Have them do a search in the jail,” Eisinger asked.
Matt Kachergus, a Jacksonville attorney who previously filed a lawsuit against the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office over a public strip search, said it’s unclear how a court would rule on the matter, but he would argue the search was unreasonable and unconstitutional.
“They could’ve done it in a less intrusive manner,” he said. “That could have been at the jail. They could’ve covered him with the doors of a car.”
The Supreme Court has ruled the lawfulness of a strip search depends on whether the circumstances reasonably justify such an intrusive invasion of privacy, Kachergus said.
Officers must consider “the scope of the particular intrusion, the manner in which it is conducted, the justification for initiating it, and the place in which it is conducted,” according to a 2004 opinion.
King, who also reviewed body camera footage, said the officers lacked a reasonable, individualized suspicion that Reed was hiding anything illegal when they initially searched him.
“Even if JSO had more facts justifying the cause to conduct such a strip search, there was nothing indicated in the video that would support their decision to do such a humiliating and intrusive search on a public street,” she said. “The law, in addition to every notion of common sense and human decency, dictates that the protocol required officers to take Mr. Reed to the jail before conducting such a private and intimate search.”
‘Variety of reasons’ someone would clench
Although police never found drugs on Reed, prosecutors have continued their case against him. His alleged exchange with the other man was not captured on the body camera footage reviewed by The Tributary.
The police report says that Sheriff’s Office funds were never recovered. However, when they arrested the man who they gave the money to, they found he – not Reed – had a $20 bill.
Reed’s strip search was also excluded from the narrative in his arrest report. The Tributary asked the State Attorney’s Office if its attorneys knew about the strip search prior to The Tributary sending questions, but spokesman David Chapman declined to comment, pending the ongoing criminal case.
Officers said Reed clenching his buttocks was reason to believe he was hiding drugs.
But Jocelyn Anderson, a sexual assault nurse examiner in Pennsylvania, said those specific muscles can sometimes be activated outside of a person’s control. It doesn’t mean someone is hiding something in their body.
“There are certainly a whole variety of reasons that could happen,” Anderson said. “Especially in the setting of being undressed in the middle of the street without their consent. I’ve performed many anal exams on patients for a variety of forensic or healthcare reasons in hospital settings and we do a whole host of things to prepare people, be comfortable, be private.”
And even still, patients clench, she said.
“When you touch someone’s genitalia without their consent, it is very common that would be their first action,” she said.
At least 10 people were arrested during the department’s operation that day, most for selling $20 worth cocaine or meth. One man was charged with selling undercover officers $20 worth of marijuana. He and six others pleaded guilty to their charges. One man was found not competent to stand trial. The charges against another man were dropped.
The Tributary hasn’t found that anyone else arrested during that operation was subjected to a strip search.
Reed is scheduled for a trial in May. During a hearing on April 3, the state offered a deal of four years in prison, which Reed declined. His defense attorney declined to comment, citing the open criminal case.
It’s extremely rare for a defendant to take a drug case to trial. From January 2017 through June 2022, just 35 out of 9,337 drug defendants in Duval County went to trial, according to the Office of State Court Administrator.
The man who was arrested at the gas station pleaded guilty to selling cocaine and was sentenced to 167 days in county jail.