Jennifer Marks says she was stopping to buy cigarettes on the way home from her pizza delivery job late last month, a common routine for the 40-year-old Slidell woman but one that on this occasion she says ended in a traffic stop and humiliating roadside body cavity search by a St. Tammany Parish deputy.
Marks says a deputy stopped her as she left a convenience store Oct. 23, ordering her from her vehicle on Bayou Liberty Road and immediately handcuffing her. She says the deputy kept insisting that he had video of her talking to a black man at the store and wanted to know, “What did you get from that n***** at the gas station?”
Marks said she didn’t talk to anyone at the store other than the clerk, and she tried to tell the deputy he had the wrong person. But he continued to press the issue, she said, threatening to take her to jail and seize her car and asking her if she knew the difference between impoundment and seizure.
Ultimately, she said, he summoned a female deputy to the scene who manually searched her vagina and her anus. Marks said she remained clothed during the search.
The deputies did not have a warrant for the search, which Marks said was conducted on the street near the entrance to Palm Lake subdivision, where she lives.
“I was never even asked if they could look through my car or touch me,” she said.
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, said the conduct described by Marks — if accurate — would be a gross violation not only of the requirement for a warrant but also of her privacy. The deputies could have accomplished the same ends by taking Marks into custody and searching her in private, Esman said.
Warrantless searches can’t be conducted “willy nilly” except under extraordinary circumstances, she said.
The unit that stopped Marks did not have a dashboard camera, nor did the deputies have body microphones, the Sheriff’s Office said.
Marks acknowledges she has had substance-abuse problems in the past, including a 2004 conviction for possession of cocaine and a 2008 DWI conviction. She said she went through drug court and that both charges were expunged. There is no record of them on the St. Tammany Parish Clerk of Court’s Office website. The only charge that shows up is a 2011 domestic violence arrest that was not prosecuted.
She has been sober for the past five years, she said, insisting that she did not have any drugs in the car or on her person when she was stopped.
Marks was ticketed for failure to use a turn signal — which she said happened when she was pulled over — and was given a summons for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. But she claims the deputies did not collect any physical evidence.
“I don’t believe he found anything in my car. He would not show me what he got. ... I did see him pull a pack of cigarettes from my car, but that was the same pack of cigarettes I just bought,” she said.
She is scheduled to appear in court Dec. 17.
Marks complained to the Sheriff’s Office Internal Affairs Division last week and also called the FBI.
The Sheriff’s Office declined to release an incident report, citing Marks’ complaint and the internal investigation. But Sheriff Jack Strain released a statement by email.
“We are investigating Ms. Marks’ complaint through our Internal Affairs Division. That process will ultimately give us a complete and factual understanding of all the circumstances surrounding her complaint,” the statement said. “These types of investigations ordinarily begin with the complainant swearing an affidavit of their complaint; we are not yet even to that stage.”
Once investigators meet with the deputies and Marks, Strain said, the office will be better able to draw an informed conclusion. “Until then, any discussion of this matter is purely speculative and is based only on one person’s version of the events,” he said.
For now, however, Strain is standing squarely behind his deputies.
“I have spoken to our deputies and they know these allegations are preposterous and blatantly false,” he said. “They are also extremely disappointed that Channel 4/The New Orleans Advocate have decided not to wait until my agency completes its investigation before making public these one-sided claims.”
Strain would not address any particulars, such as the reason for the stop, whether a cavity search was performed or what the office’s usual protocol for such searches is.
Marks said she spoke to an officer in the Internal Affairs Division who told her that proper protocol was followed.
She is indignant at the purported reason for the stop — that she spoke to an African-American man. “What I’m confused about is he’s saying I talked to a black person. That’s enough to handcuff me and arrest me?’’ she said.
This is the third recent incident in which the Sheriff’s Office has drawn criticism for alleged racial insensitivity. Charles Hughes, a private attorney who represents the Sheriff’s Office, was recorded on tape using racial slurs to explain to an unhappy client his decision about where to file a lawsuit — a tape that was made public last month. In addition, racially offensive emails were circulated to private accounts by Capt. Bobby Juge, a high-ranking official in the Sheriff’s Office.
Strain did not punish Juge, and he reacted to the Hughes story by suggesting it was politically motivated and that he might revisit the matter after the current district attorney’s race.
Strain’s chief deputy, Brian Trainor, ran first Tuesday night in a field of four candidates seeking to replace 22nd Judicial District Attorney Walter Reed. Trainor, who is on leave from the Sheriff’s Office, will face lawyer Warren Montgomery in a Dec. 6 runoff.
While Marks said an alleged encounter with a black man was the reason given to her for her stop, she maintains she didn’t speak to anyone at the store other than the clerk. Security video from the convenience store appears to back up her account.
The video shows her vehicle pulling up to the front of the store. Marks stops, jumps out and rushes in, talking into her cellphone the entire time — a conversation with her 20-year-old son, she said. She buys cigarettes, speaking briefly to the clerk before leaving the store and getting into her car and driving away.
The video shows an African-American man entering the store after she walks up to the counter. But the video does not show them speaking to each other, and she never turns to look at him. She drives away before the man makes his own purchase and leaves.
Marks said she’s angry at how she was treated.
“If this is how St. Tammany Parish runs, it needs to change. I mean, I have young daughters I’m trying to bring up in this parish. I don’t want this to happen to my daughters. ... How many daughters has this happened to?” she said.
The single mother of three said she works three jobs to support her family. When she was using drugs, she said, she couldn’t hold one job, much less three.
She said she suffered pain after the cavity search, and when she sought medical care the next day, the doctor found a tear in her anus, she said.
Beyond the physical pain she experienced, she said, she also felt degraded by being searched in public as her neighbors were driving home from work.
“It was extremely embarrassing. All my neighbors saw it. It’s 8 o’clock at night and people were coming home,” she said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.