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.
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