Question Before the Court: is police detention legally permissible, or does it constitute an unlawful arrest?
Issue of the Case
When an individual impersonating a licensed pharmacist was confronted and fled the pharmacy, was detention by the police lawfully permissible or did it constitute an unlawful arrest?
Facts of the Case
A security investigator for a national pharmacy chain visited a pharmacy location in a Western state, asking that the pharmacist on duty provide proof that she had an active license to practice the profession in that state. The interaction took place before her shift was to begin. She did not respond to the questions being posed and left the premises. The security investigator notified the local police, providing a physical description of her and noting that she was wearing a white pharmacist jacket.
A police officer located the woman in the lobby of a local bank, but she did not appear to be pursuing any banking business. It looked as though she was waiting to be picked up for a ride. The officer asked her for her name and birth date. She gave her name, and the officer asked if she knew why he was speaking with her. She said no. The officer continued trying to identify her, both with the police dispatcher and by using the computer terminal in his vehicle. Neither yielded a match between the name and birth date provided. When more questions followed, the woman asked for an attorney.
To avoid the risk that she would flee again, the officer placed her in handcuffs in his patrol car. He contacted the dispatcher to request that someone bring a fingerprint reader to that location so he could confirm her identity.
While waiting for delivery of the fingerprint reader, the officer noticed the car “shaking side to side.”
He opened the rear door and saw a Ziploc bag in her left hand.
s he was removing her from the car, he said she “threw the bag on the ground and tried to kick it underneath the patrol car.”
The officer placed her in another patrol car and said he recovered “numerous amounts of pills [of] various shapes and sizes” in the bag, in his patrol car, and on the ground.
The woman eventually was convicted at trial of felony identity theft, misdemeanor practicing pharmacy without a license, and 2 counts of misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance.
She appealed 2 legal issues: the judge’s denial of her attorney’s motion to exclude from trial the seizure of the dosage forms of the controlled substance and the length of her probation term assessed when she was convicted.
The state appellate court ruled that the trial court judge had made the correct decision when he denied the motion by the woman’s attorney to exclude or suppress evidence related to the discovery of the diverted medication because
of arguments related to whether she had been subject to “arrest.”
On the other hand, the court ruled that the 4-year term of probation assessed by the trial court judge was erroneous.
The Court's Reasoning
The court of appeals first pointed out that its obligation is to look at the “totality of the circumstances of the detention to determine whether an investigatory stop has turned into a de facto arrest.”
The court quoted from an earlier decision: “When a police officer has an objective, reasonable, articulable suspicion a person has committed a crime or is about to commit a crime, the officer may briefly detain the person to investigate. The detention must be temporary, last no longer than necessary for the officer to confirm or dispel the officer’s suspicion, and be accomplished using the least intrusive means available under the circumstances.”
The burden of justifying a warrantless search or seizure rests with the prosecution.
An appellate court is to defer to the trial court’s factual findings and “must accept factual inferences in favor of the trial court’s ruling.”
The court of appeals pointed out that the imposter had conceded that the officer had reasonable suspicion to detain her.
That judicial body also concluded that the officer was justified in detaining her while awaiting the fingerprint reader and that the action was a detainment, not an arrest. Thus, the motion to suppress the evidence related to the diverted medication was properly denied by the trial court judge.
A further conclusion of the appellate court was that “where an officer has a reasonable basis for believing a suspect poses a physical threat or might flee, various methods have been permitted to ensure the safe completion of an investigation.”
Turning to the duration of the period of proba- tion, the appellate court concluded that the trial court judge had overlooked a change in the relevant legislation that had reduced the maximum period of probation for identify theft offenses, such as what occurred here, from 4 years to 2. Consequently, the appealing imposter pharmacist prevailed on the second issue with the term of probation assessed being reduced to 2 years from 4.
Joseph L. Fink III, JD, DSC (HON), BSPharm, FAPhA, is a professor of pharmacy law and policy and the Kentucky Pharmacists Association Professor of Leadership at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy in Lexington.