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Drug charges may be justified by legal search of woman's purse

If the police in New Hampshire have probable cause to stop and search someone for shoplifting, it is generally the case that anything found in searching the person may be admissible to support an arrest and prosecution on any other crime indicated by the contraband. This comes into play in the case of a 23-year-old woman who was arrested in Walmart recently for shoplifting. When searching her, police allegedly found a needle with heroin and some crack cocaine, resulting in drug charges filed against her.

Authorities charged her with theft by unlawful taking, falsifying physical evidence and the drug possession charges. The first thing that defense counsel will check is the progression of events leading up to the woman's apprehension in the Walmart store. A security officer reported seeing her handling and hiding multiple items before leaving the store.

The security officer then confronted her and she came back into the store. The security officer will be questioned thoroughly to determine whether he did in fact observe something illegal or if he was mistaken. If he did not have at least reasonable suspicion to stop the woman as she was leaving the store, then the search committed by police of her purse was likely defective and unconstitutional.

If the stop was legal, the search of the purse was likely valid due to the need to find allegedly stolen items. In that process, any other evidence of crime, i.e., the drugs, are admissible to support drug charges under New Hampshire law. If the initial stop and arrest hold up under factual scrutiny, a strong approach by defense counsel may be to accentuate the apparent drug problem that the woman suffers. If she has a relatively clean record, an alternative disposition or a probationary period with drug rehab services may be appropriate.

Source:, "Woman faces drug charges after shoplifting incident at Manchester Walmart", March 11, 2017

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