ACLU files lawsuit against Rock County Sheriff and deputies
The Rock County Sheriff’s Office has retained legal counsel through the Minnesota Counties Insurance Trust in defense of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.
The suit, filed May 6 in U.S. District Court, names Rock County Sheriff Evan Verbrugge and deputies Dallas Hamm and Shelley Douty in the case of Kelli Jo Torres v. Dallas Hamm et al.
It accuses the county of violating Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as state law.
In particular, it alleges that in November 2018 the deputies tried to forcibly conduct a vaginal search on the side of a public road in below-freezing temperatures.
The sheriff’s office, county attorney and county administrator all said they had no knowledge of the lawsuit until the ACLU announced through a media released that it had been filed.
“Contrary to the way it is represented in the complaint, there was no strip search or body cavity search performed on the side of the road,” said attorney Joe Flynn, who is representing Rock County.
“A female sheriff's deputy performed the initial pat down over the clothing of Ms. Torres. The search in which the pipe was discovered in the body cavity of Ms. Torres was performed by a nurse at the hospital to minimize any intrusion.”
He said any further response to these allegations will be made in court.
According to the complaint, Deputy Hamm pulled a driver over in Luverne on the I-90 entrance ramp in November 2018 for a dangling air freshener from a rear-view mirror.
The report alleges he searched the driver without probable cause and that he and Douty instructed Torres, the passenger, to stand next to Hamm’s squad car. It was 9 degrees and she wasn’t wearing a coat while the two deputies questioned her and attempted a body cavity search.
The ACLU in its press release last week points out that federal law prohibits strip searches and body cavity searches of people detained for traffic offenses without probable cause.
Deputies had none, the lawsuit said.
On dash-cam audio, Torres can be heard refusing to allow the search on the roadside and repeatedly requesting that they continue the process indoors — at the sheriff’s office or the hospital.
“I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t put your hands all up in me,” she said. “I don’t think you can do that to me” and that “it feels like you’re grabbing my crotch.”
Hamm is heard offering to shine a flashlight to aid in the body cavity search and telling Torres she had lost her privilege to be warm.
The search eventually did produce paraphernalia, but charges were later dismissed.
In the ACLU press release Torres said she hopes the deputies get fired to prevent this from happening to other women.
“I feel very violated by the whole situation,” she said. “I repeatedly asked them to do the right thing. It makes me not trust law enforcement.”
ACLU-MN staff attorney Ian Bratlie also was quoted in the press release.
“The action by Rock County’s deputies clearly shows that Kelli Torres’ dignity did not matter, and they believed they could treat her however they wanted in violation of the Fourth Amendment,” he said.
“They used a dangling air freshener as an excuse for stopping the vehicle and had no excuse to search the passenger, let alone conduct a body cavity search on the side of a public road in below-freezing temperatures. This conduct is shameful and must be greeted with training, discipline and policy changes to avoid this situation in the future.”
The suit asks the court to award damages to Torres and to prevent retaliation against her.
Once paperwork is served, Rock County will file an answer with the court.
Deputy Hamm started part time with the Rock County Sheriff’s Office in 2010 and was hired in 2012 to replace Kyle Kreun, who resigned amid a formal complaint of sexual relations with a minor.
According to Hamm’s personnel file, there have not been complaints or conduct resulting in disciplinary action.
Douty left the department in September 2019 when she and her husband moved for his job.