In Florida, it is fairly common for the police to make an arrest when they find a person with pills but without a prescription. This is one of the ugly side effects of the disastrous war on drugs- drug arrests are easy, they are good for stats and police often take an arrest first, ask questions later approach to these cases. Additionally, the Constitution often takes a backseat when an opportunity for an easy drug arrest presents itself. This is often the case with pill cases where police make arrests even when the suspect claims to have a prescription or even where the police do not even know what the pill is, but suspect the worst.
In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, the police stopped the defendant for a traffic violation. During the traffic stop, the officer asked the defendant if he could search her car. She agreed. The police officer found a pill container with some pills inside he could not identify. The police officer did not get permission to take the pill container or search it. He detained the defendant and asked her about the pills. The police officer ultimately took the pill container, went to his vehicle, looked on his computer and found that the pills were Ritalin and Tramadol. The defendant was arrested for possession of drugs.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the drugs arguing the police officer did not have consent or probable cause to search the pill container. It is not illegal to have pills and since the police officer did not know what the pills were when he seized them, there was nothing about the pills that indicated they were illegal. In other words, because pills are usually not obviously illegal based on their appearance, the police officer had no probable cause at the time to seize the pills for further investigation. Somehow, the trial judge did not see the obvious Constitutional violation and allowed the drug evidence to be submitted to a jury. Fortunately, the Appellate Court saw the obvious lack of probable cause and found the search and seizure unconstitutional.
This would have been different if marijuana or heroin had been involved. Those drugs are more apparently illegal based on their appearance. However, there are all kinds of pills and a police officer’s bare suspicion that pills might be illegal is not a legal basis to seize them.