SJC: Drug Detective’s Suspicions Did Not Justify Search

Appellate courts in Massachusetts constantly grapple with the question of how much circumstantial evidence against an alleged drug dealer is enough to justify a search.  The Supreme Judicial Court’s latest ruling arrived last week in Commonwealth v. Paul Stewart (SJC-11475, decided August 7, 2014).

Experienced Boston narcotics detectives saw the defendant walking down a busy street being followed by two men and one woman.  The woman was counting currency.  One of the detectives recognized the defendant from an earlier encounter in which the defendant had sold crack cocaine to an undercover officer.  The group turned onto a side street which was a popular area for people to use drugs.  The detectives saw the group huddle together and assumed that an exchange of drugs and money had occurred.  When the individuals separated and walked in different directions, the detectives confronted the defendant.  The defendant stopped and identified himself.  When the detectives asked what he was carrying in a backpack, he initially consented to a search.  However, as the police were conducting the search, the defendant changed his mind.  The detectives continued the search anyway, and discovered a digital scale (a common tool of drug dealers) covered with a residue that appeared to be cocaine.  The defendant was arrested and searched.  The police found money and 12 small bags of cocaine on the defendant.  He was charged with a number of crimes, including possession of a class B substance (cocaine) with intent to distribute.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress all evidence that was recovered as a result of his stop and the search of his belongings.  The trial judge denied the motion and the defendant was convicted at trial.  He appealed and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed his convictions, ruling that the detectives’ search of the defendant violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Court found that the initial stop of the defendant was supported by reasonable suspicion.  It was acceptable for the police to detain the defendant and ask him what happened when he and his acquaintances huddled together.  However, reasonable suspicion did not justify the detectives’ search of the backpack after the defendant had withdrawn his consent.  After the defendant said he no longer consented to the search, the police should have immediately returned his backpack to him.  The Court further ruled that the police did not have probable cause to arrest the defendant based on their observations of his suspicious conduct.  The Court relied heavily on the fact that the detectives did not see the defendant exchange anything with the other people in his group.  The Court vacated the defendant’s convictions.  With the cocaine now inadmissible at any future trials, it is unlikely that the defendant will be tried again on these charges.

When confronted by the police, never consent to a search of your person or your belongings unless the officers have a warrant authorizing such a search.