Illegal search of a pill bottle

In State v. Broadus, the NH Supreme Court reversed and remanded two felony-level possession of drug convictions because the search was illegal. Ms. Broadus was the passenger in a car that was stopped by a state trooper on Route 101 because he saw the driver throw a lit cigarette out the window. Once the car was stopped the trooper had the driver exit the car and got him to admit that he and Broadus had smoked marijuana about an hour earlier. The driver also admitted there was a roach in the car and the driver handed it to the trooper.

The trooper then had Broadus step out of the car revealing a beer bottle at her feet that was later determined to be cold, open and containing beer. The trooper then decided to pat Broadus down for weapons and when he did he felt a pill bottle that he removed and searched. This bottle contained drugs that led to the felony convictions.

Broadus successfully challenged the search arguing the trooper lacked a reasonable suspicion that she was dangerous and thus illegally searched her. The State argued three observations justified the search: (1) Broadus lied about drinking alcohol; (2) Broadus did not maintain eye contact with the trooper while he questioned her at roadside; and (3) Broadus wore baggy clothing that could have contained a hidden weapon (the trooper testified that people often hide weapons such as razor-blades in small containers like pill bottles).

The Court did not find the State’s argument persuasive. The Court found that lying about consuming beer was not a violent crime that would give rise to concern for the trooper’s safety. The Court noted that people are often nervous when confronted at roadside by a police officer and not making eye contact does not give rise to an inference that they have committed a crime. The Court was not persuaded that wearing baggy clothing is indicative of anything other than a fashion choice.

Because the trooper lacked a warrant and there were no exigent circumstances to justify the search, the drugs found in the pill bottle were suppressed and the convictions were vacated and the case was remanded so the parties could argue a different issue.

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