Woman Who Said Officer Removed Her Tampon Settles With San Antonio

Isabella Kwai

A police officer searching Natalie Simms for illegal drugs told her to spread her legs on the side of a San Antonio street. To Simms’ shock, she said in a federal lawsuit, the female officer then shined a flashlight into her underwear, reached in and pulled out her tampon.

On Thursday, the city of San Antonio approved a $205,000 payout to Simms, 40, after she said in the suit that the city had violated her constitutional rights and that the officer had conducted a vaginal cavity examination in public with male officers nearby. She also sued the police officer who conducted the 2016 search, Mara Wilson.

“No amount of money will replace what’s been taken away from Natalie, which is her dignity,” Dean Malone, a lawyer for Simms, said in a phone interview. The two parties negotiated the amount in August, he added. “What matters to Natalie is at least an acknowledgment that she was harmed.”

Andy Segovia, the attorney for San Antonio, said in a statement, “We were able to resolve this matter with this proposed settlement and believe it to be in the best interest of all involved.”

The proposed settlement does not acknowledge wrongdoing, said Laura Mayes, the city’s chief communications officer. She declined to comment further because the case has not yet been dismissed.

“This is a shocking search. It is grossly invasive,” said Carl Takei, a senior staff lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. Without probable cause to arrest, the officers’ decision to conduct a search based on speculation was highly inappropriate, he added.

The lawsuit follows a separate incident in Houston in which Harris County agreed to pay a woman $185,000 in January 2018 after she brought a federal lawsuit saying that deputy sheriffs had performed a cavity search on her near a bustling convenience store, violating her constitutional rights.

In Texas, it is illegal to strip-search a person or their property without their consent or a warrant, and searches of body cavities must be conducted out of public view.

On the night of Aug. 8, 2016, Simms was sitting on a curb on the phone, waiting for her boyfriend, when San Antonio police officers approached her and asked if they could search her car for drugs, according to her complaint.

She had a criminal record and had served time for robbery to fund a past drug habit, Malone said. But she was not in possession of illegal drugs that night and consented to the car search because she believed she had no choice, her complaint said.

When Wilson, a veteran of the San Antonio Police Department, began searching Simms, she made small talk as if “having a cup of coffee,” according to the complaint.

The complaint said the officer asked if Simms had anything in her pants and, when Simms responded that she was on her period, whether Simms was wearing a tampon.

“I’m just going to look, I’m not going to reach,” Wilson said, according to the complaint. When she pulled the string and removed the tampon, Simms was shocked.

“It’s full of blood, right? Why would you do that?” she said, according to transcriptions of the interaction caught on dash camera video from Wilson’s vehicle, which were included in her complaint.

“I don’t know,” Wilson said, according to the complaint. “It looked like it had stuff in there.”

She held the tampon up and made statements about it before continuing to search the area around Simms’ genitals, the complaint said. The officer told Simms to remain still.

Simms said that during the search, she flinched, complained and asked if it could continue at a police station. But Wilson responded sarcastically and refused her requests, the complaint said.

When no drugs were found, officers allowed Simms to eventually drive away from the scene. But her “dignity and self-worth” were left behind, the lawsuit said.

A lawyer for Wilson did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. In court documents, Wilson has denied Simms’ allegations.

The Police Department declined to comment on its search practices, referring questions to Segovia, the city attorney.

Takei, the ACLU lawyer, said that the question now was whether the case would serve as a “wake-up call” for the Police Department, adding that police officials needed to speak out for policy to change. The amount paid to Simms was a small percentage of the department’s overall budget, he said. San Antonio allocated about $820 million to police and fire services for the 2020 fiscal year.

Wilson retired from the Police Department in May 2017. While a note was made in her file about the incident, an annual review of her performance in January 2017 said she had “exceeded expectations,” according to Simms’ complaint.

As for Simms, Malone said, “she’s just glad to get on with her life.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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