Court says sometimes, cops have to ignore mystery pills they find on somebody they're arresting

The Supreme Judicial Court today tossed the 2007 drug conviction of a man initially stopped by Cambridge police for outstanding warrants because one of the arresting officers should never have gone online to find out what sort of pills the man had put in a diabetes test kit.

The state's highest court said that while police can inventory a person's belongings at booking to ensure their safekeeping while he or she is in custody, they can't investigate them further if they can't be used as a weapon or if they have nothing to do with the original reason the person was stopped.

In the case of William T. White, Jr., who can now get a new trial, two Cambridge officers checking up on a car they were following learned the driver had one outstanding warrant for violating a domestic-abuse protective order and one for a drug offense. They pulled White over, ordered him out of the car and, on a pat frisk, found him with a prescription bottle containing one blood-pressure pill and a diabetes test kit. When the officer shook the kit, he heard what sounded like pills rattling around. White said they were blood-pressure pills, too, but they looked different from the one in the pill bottle. And when the other officer went into White's car to take out the keys and lock it up, he saw more pills that looked like the mystery ones.

Back at the station, the pill-shaking officer went online to research them and discovered they were methadone pills. White was then charged with illegal possession of a class B substance, went to trial and was convicted.

Back that up, the justices said. Once the officer discovered the test kit contained pills and not, say, a razor blade, and that they had nothing to do with the outstanding warrants, that should have been enough because the pills were not related to the original reason White was stopped and could not be used as a weapon.

At the station, police did have a right to open the test kit to create an inventory of its contents. But that should have been the end of it, the court said:

Here, Officer Bikofsky, who was not the booking officer, examined the seized pills from the container solely for an investigative rather than an inventory purpose by using the number imprinted on the pills to identify them on an Internet Web site. The investigative use of these pills transformed a lawful inventory seizure of the pills into an unlawful investigatory search of the pills.



Free tagging: 


The SJC blows it again

By on

Officer arrests person on outstanding drug charge and finds apparent drugs in his posession.

But officer then cannot take steps to determine the identity of said drugs?

In one word - Idiotic. In another word - Pathetic.

Yes and No

My gut reaction is to feel the same way but this really comes down to 4th amendment rights -- rights which are frequently eroded and ignored.

If the officers got a warrant to search the pill boxes would that have been legal? Hopefully so.

Yeah, IANAL, and I don't like

Yeah, IANAL, and I don't like the way our constitutional rights are constantly eroded in the name of the War on Drugs or the War on Terra, but this strikes me as ridiculous. The guy was arrested on an outstanding warrant for drug charges.

Also, I would guess that if the arresting officer recognized the methadone pills (without needing to look them up on the internet), that would have been OK?

Seems like a mighty fine hair to split.

I gotta admit, this is a wierd one......

I'm going to say I've agreed with, or at least understood probably every single SJC 4th amendment decision that Adam has put up here over the past few years, but this one is going to have a lot of grey areas.

One of the purposes of an inventory search of prisoners or vehicles is to keep contraband or dangerous items (drugs, guns, knives) away from people who might be harmed by them or steal them (tow truck drivers, other cops, other prisoners, etc). The court said here that Cambridge had an inventory policy which would allow officers to basically inventory anything found in the car like pills or drugs (and then examine them as part of a inventory), but since the initial officer didn't look at them as inventory (but as "investigatory) , then that means the officer didnt have the right to "search" the container?

It just seems that the search incident to arrest clause would allow the officer to be able to search this container, since he would have been allowed to under the inventory search anyway.

They should google them, regardless

There are valid safety reasons to know what those pills are - prescription for an illness or chronic medical condition? Is the guy likely to start kicking in custody?

That holds even if they can't prosecute him for them.

The guy was in a position to

By on

The guy was in a position to describe his medical conditions. It is not appropriate to investigate someone's medical history when they are perfectly able to inform you of any relevant conditions.

Get rid of it already

By on

The fourth, that is - no other civilized nation in the world has such idiotic law on the books, yet no one is screaming about being oppressed by the big bad government. It had outlived its purpose ages ago - no one is looking for traitors to his/her majesty, witches or commies. Everyone's laughing at the righties clinging to the second, yet at the same time everyone's willing to give their right nut for the fourth, which at this point doesn't do much else other than giving criminals a get out of jail free card.


By on

Do you work for the NSA? Maybe the TSA?

I am well aware of that

By on

No countries in the world have it, yet many are being used as examples of what US should be. No one's crying about non-existent freedoms of the poor Brits, Canadians, Swedes, Swiss and Japanese. Or did they all suddenly turn into scary gulags because certain things don't fit your agenda? And, as a matter of fact, I do think first in its current form should go just like the fourth and the second, so we don't have to deal with the likes of Phelps, Shabazz, occutards and dead (pig) fetus throwers.

Yeah Man

There are a whole host of stupid amendments which don't mean jack shit anymore. Look at China -- they have none of the protections the US Constitution provides and yet their economy is growing gangbusters. We'd have so much less crime if the police/authorities were free to just indefinitely imprison anyone who they suspect of doing something wrong.


By on

At least that's my guess.

The first guy, he's a troll. When someone kicks in about how great things are where the rule of law (as opposed to party rule) is theoretical, that's satire.

Yeah man

By on

Look at Sweden and Switzerland - they have none of the protections the US Constitution provides and they're scary gulags just like North Korea, right?


By on

but Sweden has 1/30 the population of the US. Sweden does not have an exceptionally diverse population. More than 60% belong to the same church. The second largest city is smaller than Boston. Sweden is a different place with different people. I think that your argument is built on weak logic if you claim that because some people think we should be more like Sweden in one way and Sweden has no 1st/4th amendment, then we should have no 1st/4th amendment.

Also, I don't know about Sweden in particular, but I know that there are extremely racist policies in many European countries. People that with differing opinions are not welcome and therefore don't stay long.

racist policies?

By on

Please do tell more! I'm assuming you're talking about immigration, where only educated professionals who can contribute to the economy instead of sucking it dry are allowed to enter, but that's what most sane people would refer to as smart immigration policies.

Also, what does population size and diversity have to do with anything? You obviously cherry-picked Sweden, but there's plenty of countries with large populations that don't resemble a typical gulag. Ever heard of Japan? Huge population, justice system that would make liberal baby jeebus crap his bed on a daily basis, yet no one seems to be complaining. Why is US special? Why does it need a system where criminals are heavily favored, even though no one else in the world has it yet seems to be doing just fine? Do we need it just so we can pound our chests and scream "FREEDOM!!! MURRICCAAA" like a bunch of apes?

I don't mean to call you ignorant, but...

By on

The accused do have rights in the countries you mentioned, save Japan.

Sweden and Switzerland are signatories to the European Convention of Human Rights, which give rights to the accused (articles 6 and 7). Moreover, Switzerland also has similar rights enshrined in its constitution (Articles 29 to 32.)

As far as Canada goes, you might want to brush up on Section 8, or better yet Sections 7 through 14, of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

England's guarantees are based on Common Law, as interpreted by the Privy Council, who are a check on the unabashed conduct of the police forces.

Japan does not have rule of law. The police decide, for example, if a crime was committed (for example, perhaps the guy committed suicide by stabbing himself 40 times in the chest) and then decide who did it, regardless of what the evidence says. Convicting someone for a crime is preferable to convicting the right person. Sorry, I don't want that.

Hey, thanks for playing. Perhaps you might want to research these things before stating them.


"Japan does not have rule of law."

First sentence: "INTRODUCTION
Japan's code-based legal system is primarily modeled on the civil laws of Germany and France."

There's a bunch of 'tradition" type law, too: "In addition to the written or "formal" law, there is a body of disparate unwritten extra-judicial norms, or "living" law. Living law includes those long-standing practices, customs and informal social norms representative of Japan's indigenous legal tradition."

So, ya, they have a lot of leeway. They also have Western style courts that can pass final judgement.

You want interesting law? Try Sharia law. Apparently there's a nifty new Caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Not based on French and German common law.

I accept your claim

By on

Yes, Japan theoretically has the rule of law, especially in civil cases. However, according to the 2013 State Department Report on Human Rights Practices for Japan:

Authorities apprehended persons openly with warrants based on evidence and issued by a duly authorized official and brought detainees before an independent judiciary. Foreign diplomats continued to claim that warrants were granted at high rates, detention sometimes occurred notwithstanding weak evidentiary grounds

Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but respected NGOs and lawyers continued to question whether they were presumed innocent in practice.

The Freakonomic folk, in their work on fixing in the sumo wrestling game, note the concept that crime rates and clearance rates are jiggled based not on evidence but on the ability to close a case.

However, you have taken a knock at the anon's claim that Japan is so safe due to the lack of protections for the accuse, so I accept the bullshit call.


By on

Evidence suppression, not imprisonment. As in illegal drugs, guns, etc found on a suspect when he was searched can be used as evidence against him during the trial and not get tossed due to an archaic law that was written hundreds of years ago with a completely different intention. No other country in the world would allow such evidence to be tossed, not even the ultra-liberal Scandinavian darlings of the bleeding heart crowd. There should be limits, obviously, meaning a cop cannot simply pull over a random car and search it at will, but not being able to search a car of a known drug dealer/gun offender that reeks of weed from a mile away (or look up information on pills found on a known drug dealer) is simply ridiculous.

It's complicated, you can

By on

It's complicated, you can google the description of a pill. However, different manufacturers make different looking pills. I have given the same med before ( same dose) and have the pharmacy send over 3 different looking pills.