Woman forced to squat naked in front of law enforcement sues Ray County Sheriff’s Office

A Jackson County woman is suing the Ray County Sheriff’s Office over a series of searches she alleges were improper, including a body cavity search and another search in which she was required to squat naked in front of sheriff’s personnel.

The lawsuit, filed last month in U.S. District Court, said the body searches were conducted as sheriff’s officers were attempting to determine if she was concealing drugs following her arrest for possession of methamphetamines after a traffic stop.

The woman alleges the sheriff’s office pursued a series of illegal searches following the traffic stop initiated by Matthew Cowan, who the lawsuit identifies as a Ray County deputy, along Highway 210 in September 2022.

The Star is not not naming the woman because court documents identify her as a prior victim of sexual abuse. The forced body cavity search was “extremely traumatic” for her, and she was crying and emotional at the hospital where it took place, the lawsuit said. The lawsuit alleges that Cowan did not comply with how state law designates such searches can occur.

In April, the lawsuit said, all charges against the woman were dismissed by the state of Missouri.

Randall Rhodes, a Leawood attorney representing the woman, declined to comment for this story.

The lawsuit names Ray County, the Ray County Sheriff’s Office, former Ray County Sheriff Scott Childers, Cowan and another law enforcement officer as defendants.

The sheriff’s office is now overseen by acting Sheriff Bart Willim, who is also the Ray County coroner, after Childers was removed from office earlier this year following a preliminary ruling by a judge in a legal proceeding pursued by Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey. Childers is currently campaigning to be re-elected to the office in the August primary, just before the case brought by Bailey’s office is set to go to trial in Ray County Circuit Court in September.

In response to a message seeking comment about the lawsuit, Childers wrote that he didn’t know the plaintiff or have any knowledge of the alleged incident.

Willim declined to comment, noting the incident occurred prior to his time with the department.

An employee who answered the phone at the Ray County Sheriff’s Office Thursday said Cowan, who they said was last a corporal in the department, was no longer employed by the office. They said he hadn’t been with the department for nearly a year.

Cowan currently has a valid peace officer license and is currently commissioned by the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office, said Mike O’Connell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

Attempts to reach Cowan for this story were unsuccessful.

The lawsuit names 12 counts, including false arrest, unlawful strip search, assault, battery and other charges.

Series of searches

According to the lawsuit, Cowan allegedly pulled over an Acura vehicle owned by the woman, who was a passenger. The suit states Cowan claimed “he pulled the Acura over for expired plates and the fact that the plates purportedly belonged to a different vehicle.”

The lawsuit alleges Cowan had no probable cause for the traffic stop.

During the stop, Cowan requested permission to search the vehicle, but did not have probable cause for a search of the vehicle and did not have a search warrant, the lawsuit alleges. Cowan said he was given permission to search the vehicle, though the lawsuit says he could not recall who gave him consent.

Cowan reportedly found a black bag with what he described as “multiple items related to the use of narcotics.” The lawsuit contends those items were lighters and empty bags, which had no residue or other indication of illegal drugs.

Cowan further requested permission to search the locked glove box of the car, and the woman declined. A police dog was brought to the car, and Cowan claimed the dog alerted near the vehicle’s front passenger door, the lawsuit said.

“Despite lacking a proper warrant or consent from plaintiff, Cowan forced open the glove box,” the lawsuit said. “He claims he found a small, black zippered pouch. Lacking a proper warrant or consent from plaintiff, Cowan opened the zippered pouch. He claims he found bags containing methamphetamines,” the lawsuit stated.

The woman was arrested for possession of methamphetamines and taken to the Ray County Jail. There, she was required to squat naked in front of sheriff’s personnel so they could see if she was concealing drugs. No drugs were found, court documents said.

“Not satisfied, Cowan took plaintiff to the Ray County Memorial Hospital, where she was forced to undergo a complete strip search and an invasive body cavity search,” the lawsuit said. “Plaintiff was handcuffed and in Cowan’s custody the entire time.”

Court documents said the woman was not aware she could have objected to the body cavity search, for which there was no probable cause in the first place, the lawsuit asserted.

The lawsuit said the woman suffered “significant physical, mental and emotional damages and injuries” as a result, and is seeking damages.