The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently published an important decision on Commonwealth v. William White, Jr. vacating a trial judge’s conviction and ruling that a police officer acted unlawfully when he searched the defendant and opened medical vials found in the defendant’s pockets and vehicle. This decision limits the scope of police authority to search an individual and his vehicle for drugs upon an arrest – even where the individual is arrested on a warrant issued for a prior drug crime.
The defendant in this case was pulled over by two Cambridge police officers when the officers ran his vehicle registration and discovered two outstanding arrest warrants issued against the defendant. The first warrant was for a violation of a protective order, and the second was for a drug offense. After confirming that the driver of the vehicle was the owner who had the warrants issued against him, the cops ordered him to exit the vehicle and arrested him with handcuffs.
One of the officers then pat frisked the defendant, and felt a small prescription pill container in a pant pocket. The defendant told the officer that it was a vial of blood pressure medication, but the officer still removed it from the defendant’s pocket for a closer look. The container was labeled with the defendant’s name on it, and had one pill inside. The officer then discovered another small vial which he officer knew normally would contain the thin strips used with a blood sugar testing kit. But after shaking the container and hearing a sound of pills rather than testing strips, the officer opened that container and saw a different type of pills inside. The officer seized this container for further testing. The officer then entered the defendant’s vehicle to lock he vehicle and remove the keys at the defendant’s request, and while doing so found another prescription pill container, unlabeled, on the front passenger seat, with pills identical to the unknown pills discovered in the defendant’s pocket. This container was also seized for further investigation.