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Court rules it sucks a woman spent 37 days in jail because a state trooper mistakenly thought her shampoo and conditioner were liquid cocaine, but she can't get compensation

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.

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Comments

Hate to break it to you, but when cocaine turns into liquid, it is clear. It doesn't look like shampoo.

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Voting closed 15

about this is fucked. a month in jail would fuck up my whole life. there has to be a faster way to test or screen a chick's shampoo for cocaine. The office should not be held liable of course--that part is obvious. but this is fucked. i am from reading this made curious about that judge's other decisions.

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Voting closed 51

The office should not be held liable of course--that part is obvious.

Why? When I make a mistake or a bad judgement call, I expect to be held accountable. As it should be. I am happy to say, I have never made a mistake so terrible, at best, it only put someone’s life on hold for a whole month.

In your obvious world, are cops exempt from accountability? If not here, then when?

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Voting closed 35

Is putting it lightly. You might add kept in a cage.

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Voting closed 20

Why would it take so long for lab results to clear this person? It certainly looks like a case of being guilty until proven innocent.

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Voting closed 80

37 days is fairly quick for state level cases

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Voting closed 16

all you need to do to test cocaine is:

1) open your switchblade
2) cut a slit in the bag
3A) put your index finger in there then use that finger rub your gums with the sample or
3B) put some in a small vial with some liquid, shake it and see if it turns blue.

near instant results.

Source: the documentary series Miami Vice.

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Voting closed 47

I forgot to add that during this process, it's vital that someone, preferably with a questionable 'Caribbean' accent refers to the drugs as 'party favors'

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Voting closed 20

When you cut open the bag and dip your pinky in, you don’t watch the bag or your finger, you stare down (usually with a serious countenance and wide open eyes) at the person watching you. Then as you taste the powder, your eyes get wider and more serious, until you start to smile and nod in satisfaction to that other person, letting them know you in fact have cocaine.

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Voting closed 28

I thought there was a field test kit that, if positive, provided "probable cause" to arrest, which get verified by a lab test later (watched alot of COPS back in the day). Also, was the lab test delay more Annie Dookan fallout (multiple tests, red tape protocols etc. to avoid the Annie factor?)

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Voting closed 7

But I'm assuming they didn't do a field test on scene because they wanted to leave the packaging intact. I don't see a lot of East Boston court drug arraignments, but 200K is very high, even for this crime. I'm guessing their may be other factors, whether she was from Boston, was she a MA citizen, did she have a one way ticket, did she give a reason for having that much cash, etc, etc. Someone with ties to Boston (family, etc) can usually have a good lawyer argue for a gps in a case like this with such a high bail. I haven't seen a lot of arraignments in a while either so I'm not really sure.

Also don't know why Customs didn't file charges if it were an international flight. I'm guessing troopers just file state charges per policy/agreement with the feds. Also guessing maybe the judge at East Boston courts sees a lot of this stuff and it usually turns out the other way?

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Voting closed 14

FTA*: '... 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...'

From what I can tell, nothing about this is fucked, unless you count the lawyer bring the case as far as he/she did.
Lets lookatthefacts...

1. Lady shows up from the DR with '...23 bottles of shampoo and conditioner and 2 canisters of beauty products in her luggage. '
2. Customs looks at her. Looks at the shampoo.Says to himself, 'Self, that's a lot of shampoo.'
3. Runs a dog by it. Dog, who is a Good Boy, gets a biscuit.
4. Statie runs a dog by it. Dog, who is a Good Boy, gets a biscuit.
5. Statie does a 'field test'. '...field tests were positive, erroneously as it turned out, for the presence of cocaine in these items.'

So, you have two dogs and a field test (what is it with those damn things, anyway? They could find coke in a Pepsi plant) coming up positive.

She's busted, cools her heels and gets sprung thirty seven days later, when the lab calls the shampoo clean.

So what the hell happened? If she's a mule, that's a problem, someone's out a bunch of money, but they don't give a shit about her. If she's not a mule, then maybe her loved ones could come up with the 5% of $200K for bail. That's ten grand. So, she sat in jail until they let her go.
Where did the money come from to pay her lawyer to do an appellate level lawsuit?
And...where did the several positive coke hits come from? Is this a smuggling effort that had some unseen shenanigans? Trace coke, enough to trigger dogs, etc on the outside, shampoo on the inside as part of a scam?

Hollywood wants to know.

* (Field Testing Administration)

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Voting closed 13

Can't imagine how you would react if they swore that you must have a gun because there was something sort of gunpowder like that dogs sniffed.

Yeah. That.

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Voting closed 20

First...cops did everything by SOP and training.
Second...in order to sue them, you have to show they did something in violation of their training thus exposing them to personal liability. Pete or Fish could explain it better.

Oh, as far as a swab showing I 'had a gun'...she has a case of 'shampoo'. They had that. I wouldn't be arrested for a gun based on a swab showing gunpowder, because, well, there's no gun. If there's no gun, then there's no gun, no matter what the swab says about gunpowder.

Not your best analogy.

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Voting closed 12

Then maybe SOP and training are wrong and need to be changed.

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Voting closed 6

the cop may have followed the rules; but obviously, the system broke and destroyed her life for 37 days (plus many years in appellate).

we are the oppressive regime in this case.

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Voting closed 22

If I were a cop, and I were asked to detain somebody because they had cocaine - the horror! - I would toss my badge into the garbage.

Who did Barney Fife think he was protecting in this scenario, and what did he think he was protecting them from?

Also, that trial took five years? So much for right to a speedy trial, huh? When are we just going to go ahead and strike that obvious crock of (expletive) from the Constitution? I mean, we're short on defense lawyers, right? Maybe we should stop overpromising the right to a speedy trial that we're clearly not delivering to people like this poor woman.

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Voting closed 27

I don't think the speedy trial provision applies to civil lawsuits, only to criminal trials, but IANAL.

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Voting closed 19

"All criminal prosecutions."

You got me.

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Voting closed 20

...not a criminal trial

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Voting closed 11

This is the first time in my almost 37 years on this Earth that I've heard the phrase "liquid cocaine" uttered by someone who was neither ordering liquor in a bar nor serving it.

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Voting closed 9

Happened last year in Houston per the googles.

In that case, they just sent the person back from whence they came. You'd also think there would be a pretty easy way to test whether something was shampoo or not, I'd imagine liquid cocaine wouldn't be particularly good for hair care.

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Voting closed 6

Lather, rinse, repeat.

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Voting closed 10

This particular case is a grave injustice and she should be compensated, but the violence that results from the trafficking of cocaine, not just on our city streets, but on an international level, is staggering. So yeah, I’m going to keep detaining people who engage in dealing cocaine, heroin, fentanyl and crystal until our policy makers legalize drugs (which I would be completely fine with).

No need to throw that fictitious badge in the trash Will. Just a hunch, but I don’t think you’d make it as a police officer.

- a Boston Cop

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Voting closed 31

I’m going to keep detaining people who engage in dealing cocaine, heroin, fentanyl and crystal

What about shampoo?

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Voting closed 30

Who did Barney Fife think he was protecting in this scenario, and what did he think he was protecting them from?

He was doing his job and was found to have had probable cause for the reasons noted. Obviously not a job you'd want, but a job nonetheless.

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Voting closed 16

Also, that trial took five years? So much for right to a speedy trial, huh? When are we just going to go ahead and strike that obvious crock of (expletive) from the Constitution? I mean, we're short on defense lawyers, right?

There is no Sixth Amendment issue here. The right to a speedy trial does not apply to civil cases. Also, it took five years after the initial charge for the appeal to her civil case be decided.

Nonetheless, per the public docket on Masscourts her civil complaint was filed on 1/23/2015, and a summary judgment dismissing it was allowed by the Superior Court on 12/19/2017. That is hardly a glacial pace in a civil matter. Her appeal was filed on 6/21/18, and just decided. Again, hardly a glacial pace in a civil matter.

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Voting closed 15

Huh. I look at this whole set of circumstances, and think "broken", but that's just me.

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Voting closed 15

You clearly have very little idea as to how civil trials work and how much goes into making sure they are conducted fairly.

Again, it's a civil matter and isn't subject to the same time standards that apply to criminal matters. Any attorney filing a civil action goes in eyes wide open with a general knowledge of a typical civil trial timeline. In a very loose nutshell, much of the timeline is dictated by the pace at which the plaintiffs and defendants work, not so much the Court. The Court will generally allow continuances and extensions after the parties agree to them. Complaints are filed. Notices to parties of interest go out with a deadline by which to answer or appear (usually six to eight weeks), counterclaims or detailed answers are drafted and submitted. Discovery begins, this can take a long time because it involves a lot of complicated research and evidence gathering, hearings to determine what evidence and exhibits are admissible are held, which are usually continued multiple times. This can take a while depending on how much is being presented. Depositions are scheduled, taken, and transcribed. These can take a while depending on the number of deponents and length of depositions. Video testimony is taken, which must be approved by all parties involved and the Court before it can be presented to a jury. Other pretrial hearings must be conducted in order to determine charges, conduct of the trial, schedule, and other housekeeping matters. Jury instructions must be written for each trial, and these can take several hours just to read to a jury, never mind how long it takes to write them. Motions for summary judgment are usually held before trial (and sometimes during the trial, while the jury is out of the room), sometimes those are granted (as was in this case), sometimes they're not and the trial proceeds.

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Voting closed 23

This is absurd. She was in jail for 37 days because she couldn't meet the $200,000 bail requirement. Put an ankle bracelet on her, take her passport, and let her go home until you figure out that the "liquid cocaine" was shampoo. It also makes zero sense that they weren't able to complete a test for 37 days.

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Voting closed 68

My God, that's obscene. Not just the initial assessment, but that anyone would believe that anyone connected to cocaine like that couldn't get a mere 200K posted over the course of 37 days.

***SPOILER***

Christ, Lalo from Better Call Saul secured 7 million to get sprung.

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Voting closed 17

i agree. unless her cori reveals she has a violent past, this would be torturous.

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Voting closed 17

the apology (or lack thereof) sounds boilerplate. technically, this wasnt tragic.

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Voting closed 11

Those canines need to be recalibrated.

I suppose it is cynical to mention that they may obey a hand signal and deploy a false positive?

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Voting closed 21

Because of an overzealous dog handler.

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Voting closed 12

2 dogs were wrong. i hope they still arent using them or their trainers/interpreters.

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Voting closed 13

I'm curious about the exceptional quantity of shampoo.

Maybe some local DR brand that's only in the import shops here at a steep markup, so it makes sense to bring home as much as you have room in your suitcase?
Maybe Grandma's family recipe handmade brand - not available in shops here? Maybe Grandma's all-natural family recipe of handmixed aloe and other stuff had just enough of the right chemicals to trigger the false-positive tests? That would explain the quantity and the false positives.

But, yeah, sounds like correct ruling regarding the officer. Did it by the book, no reason the officer should be held liable.
The bail sounds like the crux of the matter. Did she not have competent representation for bail hearing? Or... what else was going on in the city or national scene at that time that might have pushed her bail higher? Was there a rash of high-profile MS13 cases or something?

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Voting closed 10

Did it by the book

Then the book is wrong. Fix it.

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Voting closed 14

Massachusetts State Police is a failed institution. The evidence of corruption is overwhelming. State police are also known by other LEO's for their arrogance and belief in their superiority.

Was this a case of justice playing favoritism toward a corrupt institution because a woman from the DR is just a digit of no importance?

The $200K bail is extraordinary. Bail is only to assure that a person does not leave, not as a punitive measure. The amount is probably based on the belief that the woman had a higher probability of leaving the nation (even if on a bracelet) and therefore a punitive amount was established to create a legal justification of forced imprisonment. However, given the other tools available this was still an obscene and immoral amount.

The US has better justice systems than many nations. But the state and federal justice systems are also treated as unwanted step children and so are always grossly underfunded.

While the letter of the law for a speedy trial may apply only to criminal trials, allowing a system of prolonged trials, which often favor the wealthiest, harms the systems of justice. Not all of the time is spent on legal basics such as discovery. Much of the time is wasted by a court system which many politicians treat as a necessary evil.

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Voting closed 7