PIERRE — A mesh bag blurred Dirk Sparks’ vision.
He lay hooded and handcuffed as four police officers pinned him to a hospital exam table.
Through the patterned light, he saw a fifth officer filming the procedure.
His pants were loosened and pulled below his waist.
A nurse at Avera St. Mary’s Hospital in Pierre inserted a pencil-sized tube into Sparks’ urethra to drain his bladder. Moments later, an officer with the Pierre Police Department held a cup of Sparks’ urine that soon would be sent off for drug testing.
“It was degrading,” Sparks said. “I was angry. I felt like my civil rights were being violated.”
Hours earlier, police responded to a domestic dispute at Sparks’ home. When officers observed him acting “fidgety,” they asked for a urine sample. When Sparks refused, police sought a warrant from a Hughes County judge to obtain a urine sample by “medically accepted means.”
In Pierre, those means have repeatedly included forcibly catheterizing people who refuse or are unable to provide a sample. Officers subjected a 3-year-old boy to a similar procedure in February as part of a child welfare investigation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Quite frankly, it’s cruel and barbaric to forcibly catheterize anyone, let alone a 3-year-old child, and this process raises serious constitutional concerns,” said Heather Smith, executive director of the ACLU of South Dakota.
The Pierre Police Department and Avera Health declined repeated requests for interviews. The police department deferred questions to the Hughes County State’s Attorney’s office, which also did not respond to multiple phone calls.
The use of catheters to forcibly extract urine samples from criminal suspects has drawn lawsuits in others states, though courts have generally sided with the police. South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said the practice is appropriate in some situations.
Not all police departments in South Dakota use the method. In Sioux Falls, law enforcement leaders view the practice as overly invasive and an inefficient use of officers’ time for lower-level crimes in which suspects are unlikely to face more than probation if convicted.
Physical, emotional tolls
Sparks was arrested in March 2016 after his urine sample tested positive for traces of marijuana and methamphetamine. He pleaded no contest to possession of marijuana and ingestion of a controlled substance and was released from jail on time served with a suspended sentence.
The pain Sparks felt when going to the bathroom lasted for weeks, he said. And the emotional toll proved even more lasting.
He still has nightmares about the incident, he said. His fear of the Pierre police prompted him to move 50 miles east to Highmore.
“I didn’t actually think they were going to go through with it,” Sparks said. “Even when we went to the hospital, I thought it was a threat.”
The Pierre Police Department would not answer questions, and state court officials said they have no way of tracking how often catheters are used on suspects. After Argus Leader Media reported on the practice last summer, multiple people contacted the news organization to say police had threatened or put them through the practice.
Kirsten Hunter said her 3-year-old son, Aksel, was forcefully catheterized at the Avera hospital in Pierre in late February after her boyfriend failed a urine analysis. Authorities wanted to have her and her two children tested to see if they also had drugs in their system.
Pierre police officers and a Department of Social Services employee showed up at her home and said if her kids couldn’t produce urine, they would be taken from her. Hunter said her son isn’t potty-trained. So while she and her 5-year-old daughter were able to provide a urine sample, her young son couldn’t.
He was held down and forcibly catheterized by nurses.
“They just shoved it right up there, and he screamed so bad,” Hunter said. “He’s still dealing with a staph infection, and we are still giving him medication.”
The ACLU reviewed Hunter’s case and wrote a letter to the Department of Social Services condemning the incident. Smith said the state subjected a vulnerable child to trauma and injury to gather information to charge his parents. Her letter asked the department to stop catheterizing children and provide an explanation why procedure was permitted.
“The process runs afoul of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unlawful search and seizure where there are other, less intrusive means available to gather the information,” Smith said.
The Department of Social Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment this week.