High court rules against search of Auburn woman's car in drug bust

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PORTLAND — The state’s high court issued a split ruling Thursday in the case of an Auburn woman who was searched and later charged with drug crimes.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4-3 that evidence from the search of the woman’s jacket should have been allowed at her trial, but evidence from a later search of her car should not have been presented in court.

After a traffic stop Jan. 17, 2017, Donna Pagnani, 35, was arrested by an Auburn police officer for driving with a suspended license.

Before arresting Pagnani, the officer followed her as she drove home, where she parked in the driveway and locked her car doors, according to court papers.

The officer, who was aware Pagnani had charges pending in New Hampshire for trafficking in fentanyl, asked is she was in possession of illegal drugs or weapons.

When she said no, the officer told her he was arresting her for driving after suspension.

Pagnani walked away from the officer while on her cellphone. She stepped onto the porch, removed her jacket and sat on it, according to court papers.

Officers handcuffed her and walked her to a waiting cruiser. The arresting officer searched the jacket she had been wearing. He found a rock of crack cocaine, according to court papers.

The officer then tried to open her car, but found it locked. He asked another officer to check her hands for the keys. The officer said he had found cocaine in her jacket and was going to “toss the car.” Other officers forced the car keys from her hand.

The arresting officer found a sandwich bag with five smaller bags of brown powder, believed was heroin. The officer did not have a search warrant.

After a suppression hearing Nov. 7, where Pagnani argued the searches of her jacket and car were illegal, Androscoggin County Superior Court Justice MaryGay Kennedy ruled in her favor.

Prosecutors had argued the search of Pagnani’s jacket was lawful because she had been wearing it at the time of her arrest.

Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley, writing for the majority of the high court, found the search of Pagnani’s jacket was “incident” to the arrest and, therefore, allowed because it “remained associated with her person” when she was arrested.

But the high court agreed with the trial judge that the search of Pagnani’s car was “outside the scope” of the arrest and did not contain evidence of the offense that led to her arrest, which was driving after suspension and not connected to drug possession.

Justices Jeffrey Hjelm, Andrew Mead and Joseph Jabar agreed with the majority decision that search of Pagnani’s car should have been suppressed, but argued that evidence from her jacket also should have been suppressed, as ruled by the lower court judge.

“It is elemental principle that all searches conducted by law enforcement must be reasonable,” Hjelm wrote for the dissenters.

Incident searches are only reasonable when officer safety is at issue or to prevent the destruction or concealment of evidence, he wrote. If Pagnani had been wearing the jacket when she was handcuffed, it would have been “incident” to her arrest, Hjelm wrote.

The case will be sent back to the trial court, where prosecutors plan to dismiss felony charges of unlawful furnishing of scheduled drugs and unlawful possession of scheduled drugs stemming from the car search.

Misdemeanor charges of unlawful possession of scheduled drugs and operating after suspension will go forward, as well as criminal forfeiture of $912.20 in connection with the crack cocaine found in Pagnani’s jacket, according to Assistant Attorney General Johanna Gauvreau. 

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