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Defending Drug Offenses in Plymouth County in light of recent SJC ruling limiting police searches in drug cases

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.

At the station, the officer compared the physical characteristics of the unknown pills to an Internet database and identified them as 10 mg methadone pills. The defendant was charged with illegal possession of a class B substance. The defendant moved to suppress all the evidence seized during the arrest, but the trial judge denied the motion. The defendant later admitted to having possessed the pills without a prescription, and was then found guilty and convicted.

In reviewing the appeal of this case, the SJC addressed three types of legal doctrines that enable police officers to search arrestees and their vehicles: 1) search incident to arrest; 2) weapons search or “pat frisk”; 3) inventory search; and 4) the “plain view” doctrine.

1) Search incident to arrest

Ordinarily, under federal law and its interpretation of the Fourth Amendment, officers may conduct a “search incident to arrest” for warrants and contraband whenever it is reasonable to do so. The SJC, however, cited to a Massachusetts statute (G.L. c. 276, ยง 1) that was enacted to provide more protection against searches and seizures then does the U.S. Constitution. Under the state statute, a police search incident to an arrest is reasonably only if conducted:

a) for the purpose of seizing evidence of the crime for which the defendant was arrested, in order to prevent the evidence from being destroyed or concealed; or b) for the purpose of removing weapons that might be used by the defendant to resist or escape.

The SJC finds here that the officer did not act reasonably in conducting the search incident to the arrest because there was no evidence known to the officer to lead him to reasonably believe that the defendant either possessed evidence of a crime. Even when the Court considered the officer’s knowledge of the outstanding arrest warrants, the warrants were for a drug offense and a violation of a protective order, both from an unknown time in the past. According to the Court, therefore, the officer could not have reasonably believed that evidence of those crimes was still on the defendant’s person at the time of his arrest.

The only other grounds for a search incident to arrest would be to search for weapons that may be sued to resist or escape the arrest. Such a search is essentially similar to a pat frisk, but a bit more thorough.

2) Pat frisks

Pat frisks are conducted by officers to search for weapons, or items that may be used as weapons, on the individual’s person. Pat frisks are generally limited to the individual’s outer clothing, and are conducted to ensure the safety of the officers and the public during the police interaction with the individual.

In this case, the Court found that it was reasonable for the officer to pat frisk the defendant and to examine the first hard object that the officer felt in the defendant’s pocket. The Court suggested that it would be reasonable to believe that the medicine vial contained a razor blade in the closed container. However, once the officer shook the container and heard the sound of pills inside, it was no longer reasonable to believe that it contained a blade or any other weapon, and so the officer was not authorized to open the container.

3) Inventory Searches

Although the first vial could be searched under the pat frisk doctrine, the second vial in the defendant’s pocket and the third vial on the front passenger seat could not be examined as part of a weapons search/pat frisk because they were clearly not weapons. But the Court discussed yet another doctrine, which is often used by cops after an arrest. This is the “inventory search” doctrine.

Inventory searches are lawful when they are conducted under standard written procedures for the purposes are safeguarding the arrestee’s property, to protect police against false claims of theft or stolen property, and to keep unlawful items out of jails and prisons. These searches must be “noninvestigatory,” meaning an officer is only permitted in observing the obvious qualities of the item for the purposes of categorizing it in the inventory log. The officer should not examine the items closely, as if to investigate the items.

Although the officer in the defendant’s case may have acted permissibly in examining the outside of the second vial found in the defendant’s pockets for the purposes of logging it into the inventory of, the officer was not authorized to seize the pills inside the vial and cross reference them with the internet database. This conduct was clearly investigatory – it was to investigate the identity of the pills in order to criminally charge the defendant. The Court held that this search required a warrant, and the trial judge should have suppressed these pills from coming into evidence.

4) Plain view

A fourth search doctrine addressed by the Court is the “plain view” doctrine, and it applies to items which the officers observe in plain open view, without searching the defendant or his property. The Court considered this doctrine with regard to the final vial found on the passenger seat of the defendant’s vehicle as the officer entered the vehicle to retrieve the keys from the ignition at the request of the defendant himself.

The plain view doctrine authorizes police officers to seize objects in plain view only where:
i. The officer is lawfully in a position to view the object;
ii. The officer has a lawful right of access to the object;
iii. The object is clearly unlawful, or indicative of criminal activity of which the police is already aware; and iv. The officer comes across the object inadvertently.

The Court found that that the third element above was lacking in the case of the defendant. The officer arrested the defendant on an outstanding warrant for violation of a protective order and a drug offense; on those grounds alone, the Court held that the officer could not have reasonably believed that the medicine vial on the passenger seat is related to either one of those crimes for which an arrest warrant was issued against the defendant.

In sum, the Court ultimately ruled that the trial judge incorrectly allowed the evidence of the pills seized by the officer and compared to an Internet database to be presented into evidence. And since the defendant was only charged with unlawful drug possession as a result of the officer’s investigation of those pills, the conviction was vacated and the Court ordered a new trial for the defendant.

This decision severely limits the prosecution’s efforts to charge the defendant for unlawful possession of the methadone pills, since the pills seized where the most important piece of evidence for the prosecution. Furthermore, this decision also affirms the Court’s stance against unreasonable searches and seizures, limiting police searches and ensuring that experienced Massachusetts defense attorneys have the tools they need to raise the defenses necessary to protect their client’s constitutional rights.

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