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Winston v. Lee


The defendant shot a victim during an armed robbery, receiving a gunshot wound in the exchange. Shortly after the victim was taken to a hospital, officers found the defendant near the scene of the shooting. The officers took the defendant to the hospital, where the victim identified him as the assailant. The government asked the court to order the defendant to undergo surgery to remove the bullet lodged under his collarbone. The government asserted the bullet would provide evidence of the defendant’s guilt or innocence. Expert testimony suggested the surgery would only entail a minor incision and could be performed under local anesthesia. The court granted the motion. However, X-rays taken just before surgery was scheduled showed that the bullet was lodged much deeper than the surgeon had originally believed.


Whether courts can order surgery to remove evidence of a criminal act from a suspect’s body?


Yes. However, this is a serious intrusion into the suspect’s reasonable expectation of privacy and must be used only in extreme circumstances.


The Court held that a compelled surgical intrusion into an individual’s body for evidence implicates substantial privacy and security issues. Such an intrusion may be unreasonable even if it is likely to produce evidence of a crime. The reasonableness of surgical intrusions beneath the skin depends on a case-by-case approach in which the court must weigh the individual’s interests against society’s interests in obtaining criminal evidence. The uncertainty about the medical risks, and the intrusion on the defendant’s privacy interests and body are severe. This must be counterbalanced by the government’s need to intrude into the defendant’s body to retrieve the bullet. As the government had available substantial additional evidence that the defendant was the criminal, its need to obtain the bullet was diminished.


470 U.S. 753, 105 S. Ct. 1611 (1985)

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