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Criminal Suspects May Reject Surgery To Remove Bullets

March 20, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Criminal suspects generally may not be forced to undergo surgery for the removal of bullets even when such surgery is likely to yield evidence of a crime, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously today.

The court blocked Virginia prosecutors from forcing robbery suspect Rudolph Lee Jr. to undergo surgery for the removal of a bullet embedded in his chest.

Prosecutors contend that the bullet could prove that Lee, now in prison on other charges, participated in a 1982 robbery of a Richmond store.

″A compelled surgical intrusion into an individual’s body for evidence implicates expectations of privacy and security of such magnitude that the intrusion may be unreasonable even if likely to produce evidence of a crime,″ Justice William J. Brennan wrote for the court.

Now, prosecutors will not be able to obtain the bullet as evidence if they choose to go ahead with Lee’s prosecution. The prosecutors say Lee was shot June 18, 1982, by Ralph Watkinson, a Richmond store owner, in an exchange of gunfire. Watkinson also was wounded.

Police who responded to the robbery found Lee eight blocks from the store. He was suffering from a gunshot wound to the chest and told police he had been shot when two individuals attempted to rob him.

After an investigation, police decided that Lee was lying. He was charged with attempted robbery, malicious wounding and unlawful use of a gun.

Brennan’s opinion said courts must balance the government’s interest against the severity of the bodily intrusion. He said Virginia prosecutors ″failed to demonstrate that it would be reasonable ... to search for evidence of this crime by means of the contemplated surgery.″

Brennan noted that the medical risks connected with the operation, although not extremely severe, ″are a subject of considerable dispute.″

He said Virginia prosecutors ″failed to demonstrate a compelling need″ for the bullet even though the bullet might have turned out to be useful in prosecuting Lee.

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