The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed the conviction of a drug trafficker who was caught hiding 24 grams of crack cocaine in his buttocks because the discovery of the drugs happened when Brockton police officers illegally strip searched him. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Amado.
A jury convicted the defendant of trafficking in cocaine. He had been spotted by Brockton cops riding in a car at around 9:40 p.m. on June 2, 2011. One of the officers recognized the defendant as having been arrested for illegally possessing a gun a few weeks earlier. A cruiser containing four officers began following the defendant’s car and one of the cops saw that the car’s registration was not properly affixed. The cops pulled over the car and saw the defendant, who was sitting in the front passenger’s seat, move his arm behind his body. The defendant appeared to be nervous. He avoided eye contact, he was breathing rapidly, and his hands were trembling. The police ordered him to get out of the car and one of the officers pat-frisked him to see if he was carrying a weapon. While the officer did not find a weapon, he felt what he believed was a wad of cash in the defendant’s front pocket (the defendant confirmed it was $500) and an object behind the defendant’s testicles. The officer did not believe the object was a weapon, but suspected the defendant was attempting to hide narcotics in his buttocks. The officer pulled the defendant’s shorts away from his body and saw a plastic bag protruding from the defendant’s backside. A police supervisor arrived on the scene and escorted the defendant to an alleyway between two buildings. The supervisor and a second cop again pulled the defendant’s shorts and underwear away from his body and shined a flashlight on the defendant’s bare buttocks. The supervisor pulled a plastic bag containing trafficking weight of crack cocaine from the defendant’s buttocks.
The defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing the drugs were discovered during an illegal search. A superior court judge ruled the police officers’ stop of the defendant’s car, the exit order, and the search of the defendant’s buttocks were all lawful and denied the motion. Following his conviction, the defendant appealed and the Appeals Court upheld the superior court judge’s denial of the motion to suppress. The Supreme Judicial Court then decided to hear the case.
The SJC agreed with the trial court and the Appeals Court that the stop of the defendant’s car was lawful, as was the exit order and the pat-frisk for weapons. However, the search of the defendant’s bare buttocks was unconstitutional. The Court concluded that although the defendant’s clothes were not completely removed, the officers’ conduct in pulling away the defendant’s shorts and underwear and looking at his bare buttocks qualified as a strip search. Under Massachusetts law, a police officer may not conduct a strip search unless there is probable cause to believe the defendant is committing a crime. The Court held the officers did not have probable cause to believe the objects secreted in the defendant’s buttocks were narcotics. While the defendant’s behavior was “highly suspicious,” there were not specific facts warranting a conclusion that he was involved in illegal drug activities. Therefore, the police should not have strip searched the defendant. The Court was also critical of the police officers’ decision to conduct the strip search in a public place, where “any number of persons could have observed the encounter.”
Three justices dissented, arguing probable cause existed to establish the defendant was committing a crime and his strip search was conducted in a reasonable manner and place.
The case was remanded to the superior court, but without the drugs to present to the jury, the Commonwealth will be forced to dismiss the case.