File picture: Pexels

Washington - Natalie D. Simms was in shock as she stood, hands raised, on the dimly lighted side street in San Antonio, Texas. A police officer looking for drugs had failed to find anything after combing through her pockets - but much to Simms' horror, the search wasn't over.

"Spread your legs," the officer allegedly told Simms.

On August 8, 2016, Simms was subjected to a public vaginal cavity search during which her tampon was pulled out in view of male police officers and others nearby, according to a federal lawsuit filed last year in the Western District of Texas. Simms sued the city of San Antonio and now-retired San Antonio Police Department detective Mara Wilson for unspecified damages, alleging that the act was a "blatant violation" of her constitutional rights, and resulted "in significant and lasting harm."

"Natalie suffered through a shocking display of what can occur when police power is unchecked," Dean Malone, an attorney for Simms, told WOAI in 2018. "We intend to seek full damages available under the law and look forward to presenting Natalie's horrible experience to a jury."

Now it appears the legal battle may be ending differently than how Malone envisioned. The city is scheduled to vote Thursday on a proposed settlement that would award $205 000 (about R3 million) to Simms, according to an official agenda. Simms and her lawyer have agreed to the sum, the San Antonio Express-News reported, citing a city memo.

The potential payout offered to Simms, 40, is not the first of its kind in Texas. Last January, officials in Harris County paid $185 000 (R2.7 million) to a Houston woman who alleged in a federal lawsuit that her constitutional rights were violated when two sheriff's deputies performed a cavity search on her near a bustling convenience store, the Houston Chronicle reported at the time. In that case, the settlement drew backlash from the woman's lawyers and advocates, who decried the amount as "an injustice," according to the Chronicle.

The San Antonio Police Department, the San Antonio City Attorney's Office and lawyers for Simms did not respond to requests for comment late Tuesday.

According to Simms's lawsuit, her troubles began as she sat on a curb on that August night waiting for her boyfriend. Simms was perched near the street, talking on her cellphone when police officers descended, the suit said. It was later revealed that officers had been investigating the area after receiving complaints about possible drug activity, the Express-News reported. A police detective reportedly said he had seen Simms, who has a criminal record, and another woman walk beneath a highway underpass where they appeared to sell drugs, according to the Express-News.

First, police obtained consent to search Simms' car, which she gave "knowing that she had done nothing wrong," court documents said. Meanwhile, a female officer was called to the scene to search Simms and it wasn't long before Wilson, a department veteran, arrived.

After looking through Simms' clothing and finding nothing, Wilson, who allegedly did not have a warrant at the time, asked if she could remove the woman's shorts, making small talk as she continued the search, according to the lawsuit.

"Officer Wilson was initially talking as if she were sitting down and having a cup of coffee with Natalie," the suit said. "Unfortunately, this was not a meeting over coffee, and Officer Wilson's decision as to how to conduct the search was about to take a turn for the worse."

Wilson instructed Simms to "spread your legs," according to a transcript of dash-cam footage included in the lawsuit. Wilson added, "I'm gonna ask you, do you have anything down here before I reach down here?"

Simms said she didn't and expressed alarm about Wilson's intent to examine her vagina, noting that she was on her period. Armed with a flashlight, the officer said she planned only to look, not touch, and "pulled open Natalie's pants and underwear," the complaint said. Five other officers, all of whom were men, were nearby, the suit alleged.

That's when Wilson noticed the tampon string and pulled, according to the suit.

"Officer Wilson did so knowing that Natalie was on her period, and also knowing and seeing that Natalie had a menstrual pad in place," the lawyers wrote.

Still, Wilson repeatedly asked Simms to confirm she was using a tampon.

"It's full of blood, right?" Simms said. "Why would you do that?"

"I don't know," Wilson responded. "It looked like it had stuff in there."

Ignoring Simms's protests that she didn't have contraband, Wilson continued her search, at one point even remarking, "You're very hairy," the suit alleged.

Then, Wilson told Simms to turn around and spread her legs again, the complaint said. There was another place she had yet to look.

"Officer Wilson had violated Natalie vaginally, and now it appeared that she might violate Natalie anally," the suit said. "She was doing so without a warrant, with no medical personnel present, and on a public street in view of several people as well as those passing by."

Simms asked multiple times if she could be taken to a police station, but her requests were disregarded, according to the lawsuit.

"If you don't have nothing, you don't have anything to worry about, okay, but these are all the places that everybody hides stuff, so this is where we have to search," Wilson told Simms, according to the transcript. Wilson later testified that she has recovered plastic bags containing drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin, tied with string from people's crotches, the News-Express reported.

It is unclear if Wilson proceeded with the cavity search of Simms. The complaint said Simms ultimately left in her own car after officers did not find anything illegal in her possession.

"Even though Natalie was allowed to leave the scene, a part of her dignity and self-worth was left behind," the lawsuit said.

According to the complaint, officials said Wilson "did nothing that violated any of the City's procedures by searching Ms. Simms in the manner she searched her." Instead of facing serious punishment such as termination, a notation was made in Wilson's personnel file, the lawsuit alleged. Wilson retired in May 2017, about nine months after her encounter with Simms, as a 32-year veteran of the department.

The Washington Post