The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today upheld a superior court judge’s order to suppress a large amount of cocaine and hundreds of Percocet pills, which will allow the defendant to escape further prosecution. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Abdallah.
The defendant was indicted for trafficking in cocaine and Percocet after Raynham police officers seized and searched his bag, finding the drugs along with thousands of dollars in cash. The defendant had been arrested in June of 2013, after causing a disturbance at a hotel. According to the desk clerk, the defendant refused to leave his room after checkout time. When the cops responded, they learned the defendant had an active arrest warrant, charging him with larceny under $250. An officer placed the defendant in handcuffs, but then realized he was wearing a small, cloth backpack. The handcuffs were removed from the defendant’s wrists and he was permitted to take off the backpack, which was taken by another officer. Meanwhile, the officers made arrangements for the defendant to pick up his personal belongings, including a computer and a video game system, at the hotel’s front desk after he was released. The police also assured the defendant that his car would stay in the hotel lot until he was able to retrieve it.
For some reason, the cops did not leave the defendant’s bag with his other belongings at the hotel. Instead, the bag was transported to the police station along with the defendant, and the bag was searched upon arrival. Inside the bag was more than $7,000, bags of cocaine, and around 500 Percocet pills. Following his indictment, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the contents of the bag, arguing the police had conducted an unconstitutional search. A superior court judge agreed and ordered the drugs to be excluded from the defendant’s trial. The defendant appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the order of suppression.
The Commonwealth argued the police had appropriately conducted an inventory search of the bag. Massachusetts law states that when a person is taken into custody, the police may generally search and make an inventory of his or her belongings. The primary purpose of inventory searches is to make sure the arrestee’s belongings remain safe and accounted for during the time the arrestee is in custody. Inventory searches are required to comport with a police department’s written policies and procedures and in this case, the judge determined the Raynham officers’ search of the bag was in compliance with the written policy. The issue here was whether an inventory search was appropriate at all – not whether the inventory policy was followed. The Court concluded the police here had no constitutional justification for seizing the bag to begin with and, therefore, any search of the bag was per se unconstitutional. The Court said because the hotel staff was willing to safeguard all of the defendant’s other property, the bag also could have been left at the hotel. The safety of the contents of the bag would be have been assured by the hotel. Instead, it appears the cops singled out the bag as the one piece of the defendant’s property to bring along to the station and ultimately to search. Accordingly, the officers’ search of the bag was unlawful and its contents cannot be admitted at trial (which means the case will need to be dismissed).
Interestingly, if the cops had decided to search the bag immediately upon its discovery, the search likely would have been upheld under a legal theory called incident to arrest.