Limited Scope of Searches “Incident to Arrest” Affirmed by SJC

When police officers make an arrest, they are permitted to search the person being arrested along with his immediate surroundings.  Such a procedure is called a “search incident to arrest.”  In United States v. Robinson, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the police may search for weapons, contraband, or evidence of a crime.  The contraband and evidence does not need to be related to the crime for which the individual is being arrested.  The Massachusetts Legislature passed a law in 1974 that limited the types of evidence that the police may search for during a search incident to arrest.  In Massachusetts, the police may search for weapons or for contraband or evidence that is related only to the crime for which the individual is being arrested.

The importance of the difference between federal law and Massachusetts law was illustrated last week with the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Commonwealth v. William White, Jr., which ruled that Cambridge police officers exceeded their authority in their search of the defendant.  The defendant was arrested on outstanding warrants charging him with a restraining order violation and a drug offense.  During the course of the arrest, the police officers searched the defendant’s pockets and the car he was driving.  The officers found two small containers holding what appeared to be prescription pills.  The officers seized the containers, examined the pills, and concluded the defendant did not have a prescription to possess them.  The defendant was charged with illegal possession of a narcotic.

Under federal law, the police officers would have been authorized to seize the pills as possible contraband or evidence of an unrelated crime.  Not so under Massachusetts law.  The SJC pointed out that the defendant was being arrested for warrants related to past alleged criminal conduct.  Therefore, the arresting officer “reasonably could not have conducted a search incident to arrest for the purpose of seizing contraband or evidence related to the prior crimes of arrest, because there was no reason to believe that any such contraband or evidence would have any connection to those prior crimes.”  While they were entitled to search for weapons, the officers’ search should have ended when they realized the containers in the defendant’s pocket and car contained only pills.

As always, the police will try to evade this rule by asking people under arrest for their consent to search their property, their cars, and their homes.  If you are under arrest, never give your consent for the police to search anywhere without first consulting a criminal defense attorney.