The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled today that a woman locked up for more than a month after she was arrested at Logan Airport with two dozen bottles of shampoo and conditioner that were, in fact, shampoo and conditioner, won't get a dime from the state trooper who arrested her for cocaine trafficking because he followed the rules and legitimately thought at the time that she was a drug mule.
The court allowed that what happened to Johanna Ortiz in January, 2013 was "a tragic mistake," and that "the nightmare no doubt has scarred her," but said that Trooper John Morris is protected by the concept of "qualified immunity" - based on what he knew at the time, he had probable cause to arrest her and so did nothing wrong and is protected from any judgment.
Also, Ortiz's assertion that she heard a customs agent say the cocaine-positive test results from her luggage and the cash were negative - which might have bolstered her case that Morris did, in fact, do something wrong - were not admissible because they were not based on her "personal knowledge" - she was unable to identify the customs agent who allegedly said it because she heard it from another room.
Ortiz's nightmare began when she returned from a trip to the Dominican Republic with 23 bottles of shampoo and conditioner and 2 canisters of beauty products in her luggage.
Ortiz was pulled from the customs line and brought to a separate room with her luggage. A Customs drug-sniffing dog reacted to the bottles, some of which had "nonfactory, clear plastic seals around the opening," according to the court's summary of the case. Morris set his own drug-sniffing dog loose with the products and cash; it, too, reacted as if they contained cocaine.
Morris arrested her and filed a complaint charging Ortiz with trafficking in more than 10 kilograms of liquid cocaine. A judge in East Boston Municipal Court set bail at $200,000.
Unable to post bail, Ortiz was incarcerated. Ortiz was released thirty-seven days later, when prosecutors entered a nolle prosequi on the charges against her because laboratory tests were unable to show any controlled substances in the beauty products; they were, as Ortiz had claimed from the onset, simply shampoo and conditioner.
Ortiz sued in 2015 for damages for the alleged violations of her civil rights.
But in their ruling today, the appellate justices upheld a decision by a Superior Court judge to dismiss the case, and said there's nothing they can do.
In the context of a warrantless arrest, a reasonable belief of probable cause held by an arresting officer, even if ultimately mistaken, entitles the officer to qualified immunity. ... Because probable cause, by its nature, "turn[s] on the assessment of probabilities in particular factual contexts and cannot be reduced to a neat set of legal rules" (quotation omitted), qualified immunity will protect an officer in the absence of an identified body of relevant case law that clearly establishes the answer with respect to probable cause.
Here, the undisputed record shows that Morris was told by CBP agents that Ortiz had twenty-three containers and two canisters in her luggage, the CBP canine had alerted to the presence of narcotics in these items, and field tests were positive, erroneously as it turned out, for the presence of cocaine in these items. ... Morris also had been told that the containers lacked a factory seal and instead had a clear plastic covering;7 and, he knew from his experience and the experience of other agents and officers that cocaine was often packaged in this manner. Morris knew that Ortiz had an envelope containing $660, separate from her wallet, which (based on his experience and training) he believed to be consistent with the value of a drug courier's fee for transporting the volume of cocaine suspected to be held within the containers. Finally, Morris's own canine alerted to the presence of drugs on the currency. Together, this information provided probable cause to believe that Ortiz had committed the crime of trafficking in cocaine.