Driving with Cough Drops While Black

They got pulled over and tossed in jail on suspicion of having cocaine hidden in lozenge wrappers. That’s when the scandal began.

Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

It started as the most mundane of Saturday mornings. Imran Laltaprasad had just picked up his buddy Francisco Torres Jr. in Weymouth, and the two were heading out to move some furniture for Laltaprasad’s brother. But they wouldn’t get very far. As Laltaprasad merged his Nissan Altima onto Route 3, he noticed a state police cruiser behind him.

It was a familiar sight. Since getting home from prison a year and a half before, Laltaprasad, who is 37 and Black, says he had been pulled over more times than he could remember. The stops—almost always for minor traffic violations—had become such a nuisance that he had once called a lawyer asking if anything could be done. There wasn’t. “You can’t exactly take out a restraining order against the police,” the lawyer said. Now, as Laltaprasad saw the cruiser’s blue lights flash in his rearview mirror, all he could think was, Here we go again.

Laltaprasad watched in his side mirror as two state troopers stepped out of the cruiser and strode toward his car. “License and registration,” he recalls John Dailey, an eight-year veteran of the force at the time, saying to them. Apparently, Laltaprasad had committed a marked-lanes violation, crossing over a double yellow line with both driver’s-side wheels. Laltaprasad wasn’t surprised. It was just the kind of minor and impossible-to-disprove infraction that he believed the police often used as a pretext to pull him over.

Meanwhile, the other trooper, Michael Gagnon, spoke with Torres through the passenger-side window. Fresh out of training for new recruits, Gagnon was doing a so-called left-seat, right-seat patrol with Dailey, the state police’s term for a ride-along with a veteran trooper. “When that’s happening,” one state trooper says, “they’re on the hunt to stop anything and everything just to give the new kid experience.” From the passenger side of the car, Gagnon asked Torres, who is Latinx, for his identification, and Torres told him his name and birthday and then watched as the two troopers returned to their cruiser.

A moment later, they were back. “Step out of the vehicle,” Dailey ordered Laltaprasad, according to Laltaprasad’s and Torres’s recollection of events. (A police document filed later backs up their account, although it does not specify which trooper gave the exit order.) Laltaprasad complied, but questioned the order as he stood up. “Why am I getting out of the car?” he recalls saying. “I ain’t do nothing.”

“Officer safety,” Laltaprasad remembers Dailey saying, adding that he had seen Laltaprasad shifting from side to side in his seat. Dailey and Gagnon had also run background checks on the two men from inside their cruiser and discovered that both had prior firearms convictions.

According to Laltaprasad, Dailey asked if he had any weapons. “Just my pocket knife,” Laltaprasad said, and handed it to him. (Laltaprasad, who has only one leg and still has some old enemies from his life before prison, says he just feels safer carrying a knife.) Dailey also patted him down and discovered $1,120 in cash; Laltaprasad was heading to Vegas for a boys’ trip later that day. Dailey walked Laltaprasad to his cruiser and placed him in the back seat. Next, he frisked Torres and sat him down next to Laltaprasad. Then, Dailey returned to the car to search it.

There had been a time in Laltaprasad’s life, before going to prison, when a search of his car would have been disastrous. He had been dealing drugs then. But now, after completing his prison sentence, he was living on the right side of the law: working a steady job, taking care of his daughters, and staying out of trouble. The cops were being punks, he thought. He felt they just wanted to mess with him. But he was confident that once they got it out of their system, he and Torres would be on their way.

A minute later, Dailey approached Laltaprasad holding a small black plastic bag of pills and asked what the bag contained, according to a police document. Now Laltaprasad was irritated. “Man, those are my dick pills!” he said, according to the document. “I’ve got a flight to catch. I don’t have time for this shit.”

But Dailey didn’t seem to believe him, Laltaprasad recalls, adding that the trooper said the pills looked like they contained fentanyl.

Laltaprasad was shocked, and growing more anxious by the minute. Hastily, he told Dailey to look in the glovebox, where he’d find the medicine’s original packaging and the rest of the pills. When Dailey asked if he could search the rest of the vehicle, too, Laltaprasad told him to go ahead. After all, he had nothing to hide.

A moment later, after going through the trunk, Dailey strode back toward him. He had found something, he claimed: a white powdery substance in a backpack. Dailey said it looked like cocaine, Laltaprasad and Torres recall. “What?” Laltaprasad exclaimed. “Listen, man, there’s no drugs in my car unless you put it in there,” he recalls saying. Then, Laltaprasad and Torres say, Dailey revealed another detail: The cocaine was wrapped inside Halls cough-drop wrappers. That’s when Gagnon read the men their rights. They were under arrest.

If what was happening hadn’t been so terrifying, Laltaprasad might have laughed at the absurdity of it all: That bag of Halls had been in his backpack for months, and the cough drops were mint flavored, so they were white and a little chalky. Still, Laltaprasad thought, there was no way anyone, let alone a cop, could believe the lozenges were cocaine. Unless, he said to himself, the officer intended to lie.

It was a cruel irony for Laltaprasad and Torres to find themselves handcuffed side by side. For the past year, the glue that held together their friendship was a resolve to never put themselves in this situation ever again. Both men had committed crimes in the past—and paid a heavy price. While dealing drugs in his twenties to make a living, Laltaprasad had survived a murder attempt that cost him his leg. He was left for dead after being shot multiple times, and he never found out who did it. Later, he was convicted of possession with intent to distribute heroin and cocaine and spent three and a half years in prison before his release in 2018.

Torres’s criminal record, by contrast, was the result of “one really bad night,” he says. In his mid-twenties, he went out drinking, blacked out, led police on a car chase, and fired shots into the air from a gun he owned illegally. He didn’t resent the punishment that followed: 18 months in prison. Frankly, he thought, it fit the crime.

Now both men were beating the grim odds that face ex-cons. They had steady jobs—Torres was a cook and Laltaprasad worked at an auto-body shop. Torres had found religion and was converting to Islam with Laltaprasad’s guidance. And they were dedicated fathers. Laltaprasad was in the process of gaining full custody of his two daughters, and Torres paid child support to the mother of his three children and saw his kids on weekends. They were leading decent, productive lives. But now here they were again, back in handcuffs for a crime that had never even occurred.

As the cruiser drove toward the state police’s Norwell barracks, the troopers asked where Laltaprasad was staying in Vegas. When he couldn’t say—his friends had made the arrangements—the troopers concluded he might be lying, according to a statement from state police spokesman David Procopio. Laltaprasad pleaded his case to them. He told the troopers how he’d been flying straight and was about to buy a house to live in with his children. He was so certain of his innocence that he implored Dailey, over and over again, to test the “drugs.” But Dailey said that would not be possible. “It seemed the more I said, the more determined he was to lock me up,” Laltaprasad later recalled.

At the barracks, Torres says, Gagnon placed the men in holding cells and then called in a K9 unit to search Laltaprasad’s car. Around 11:30 a.m., Sergeant David Nims and his K9 partner, Echo, a drug-sniffing dog, pulled up to the Norwell barracks, according to police records. Echo sniffed Laltaprasad’s car and found nothing. Next, Nims led the dog inside to a desk area, where Dailey had placed Laltaprasad’s backpack in a filing cabinet. Now Echo sniffed the area around the cabinet and indicated that it had detected drugs. The dog never sniffed the backpack itself. Still, in his written report, Gagnon included the dog’s positive indication near the cabinet as evidence implicating Laltaprasad and Torres.

Then there was the matter of weight. The precise quantity of cocaine can have life-altering consequences. Anything 18 grams or more is considered trafficking, a crime that can result in two decades of prison time. The police document claims that when Dailey weighed the Halls cough drops, the scale displayed a weight of 19.09 grams.

Back in the cellblock, Torres recalls, Sergeant Nims told them they would be charged with trafficking cocaine. Laltaprasad snapped. He kicked the door of his cell and yelled that the police would not get away with setting him up. Torres felt sick to his stomach. He had been holding out hope that the whole situation could be cleared up as a misunderstanding. But now he knew that wasn’t happening. “This is wrong,” he said.

Nims unlocked Torres’s cell and led him to the booking area. As Nims described the evidence against him, specifically the dog’s positive indication near the filing cabinet, Torres recalls repeating that detail back to him: “It hit on a filing cabinet?” What Nims was saying seemed crazy to Torres. A dog sniffing a cabinet was evidence of drug trafficking? He gave Nims a quizzical look, which seemed to set him off. “Put your hands against the wall,” Torres recalls Nims telling him. Then Nims reached between his legs from behind and grabbed Torres’s testicles. Torres knew that searches could feel invasive, but this didn’t seem normal.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“Searching for drugs,” he recalls Nims responding.

Then Nims squeezed his testicles hard and Torres doubled over in pain.

“Stop resisting,” he says Nims told him. “Stop resisting or I’ll put your head through the wall.”

“Y’all are dirty cops,” Torres shot back. (In interviews, four people said that Torres recounted this incident to them shortly after it occurred. In an emailed response, Procopio said, “Sergeant Nims’s frisk was an appropriate attempt to search for concealed narcotics.” Procopio also said that there is no video footage documenting Torres’s booking.)

When they were finished, Dailey and Gagnon loaded the two men into their cruiser again and set off for the Norfolk County Correctional Center, where they were put in adjacent cells, connected only by an air vent near the ceiling. They could hear but not see each other. That evening, they dropped to the floor at the same time and prayed.

On Monday, after he’d spent about 48 hours behind bars, Laltaprasad’s bail was set at $25,000 cash. He used the jail phone to call his sister, an accountant on the South Shore, and ask if she could come up with the money. She withdrew thousands of dollars in cash from her own account and then made the rounds to family members collecting thousands more in 10-, 20-, and 100-dollar bills. On Monday night, just before the bail clerk left for the night, Laltaprasad’s sister made it to the correctional center with $25,000 in a bag.

At around 9 p.m., Laltaprasad drove with his sister and his brother to the Norwell barracks to collect Laltaprasad’s property. The person on duty handed Laltaprasad his phone, his cash, and his backpack while his sister, who asked not to be identified by name, watched in stunned disbelief. If the police had really believed they had caught Laltaprasad trafficking cocaine, they would never have given these things back, she thought. The phone, the cash, the backpack—all of it would have been retained as evidence. “I knew immediately the whole thing was horseshit,” his sister later recalled. The police, she thought at the time, weren’t even pretending to believe their case. (In an emailed response, Procopio said that the police only considered the cough drops and male enhancement pills to be evidence.)

Next, the three siblings retrieved Laltaprasad’s car. It had been ransacked. The carpeting was ripped from the floor. Every compartment was open, the contents strewn about. Laltaprasad’s sister thought it looked like the aftermath of a desperate search, a search for evidence that didn’t exist to justify an arrest that should never have occurred.

Laltaprasad had spent only three days in jail, but the episode was already wreaking havoc on his life. As he faced down criminal charges, he realized he couldn’t go through with the purchase of his new home. He would need money for a lawyer, and he knew that over the following weeks the free hours he might have used for things like the home inspection and gathering paperwork would instead be spent dealing with the case. He decided to pull back the deposit on his accepted offer instead of losing it. But that presented another problem. He had already sold his current home in anticipation of buying the new one. So within a few days, he and his two daughters were homeless and had to move into a single room in an extended-stay hotel. (His real estate agent felt so bad for him that she picked up part of the tab.)

Torres, meanwhile, was in even worse shape. For one thing, he and his family couldn’t afford bail. But even if they could have, he still wouldn’t have been let free to await trial at home. Torres had completed two years of a three-year probation related to his previous gun conviction. This arrest—which counted as a violation of his probation, regardless of his guilt or innocence—had triggered a warrant, meaning police could hold him until trial. In normal times, he would have been guaranteed a trial within 12 months, but because of the pandemic there was no legal limit on how long he could be held in jail.

Torres’s court-appointed lawyer explained the situation to him, and the news was crushing. Two of his children’s birthdays were coming up; they were born in the second half of August. He had missed their birthdays when he was in prison, and he had vowed to never miss one again. They were young—four and six—and they wouldn’t understand that it wasn’t his fault. All they’d notice was that he wasn’t there.

Then there was the question of his job. Torres didn’t have the nerve to call his boss and say he’d been arrested over his friend’s cough drops. Who would believe such a thing, anyway? So as the days stretched on, and Torres missed one shift after another, he lost his job.

In early September, almost two weeks after the arrest, Torres’s relatives called Douglas Babcock, a criminal defense attorney in Boston. Torres’s relatives, including his mother and his aunt, insisted to Babcock that Torres was innocent. Every defense attorney has heard that claim a thousand times, but Torres’s mother and aunt were so insistent that Babcock seemed to believe them. He agreed to take the case.

The next day, Babcock walked into a visitation room at the Norfolk County jail and sat down in front of a clear glass partition. On the other side was Torres in an orange jumpsuit. The defense, Torres told Babcock, should be straightforward: There were no drugs in the car. Babcock told him it wasn’t that simple. During pretrial hearings, judges tend to take the police version of events at face value, as if they are the settled facts of the case. (For the most part, prosecutors do as well.) A judge, Torres remembers Babcock telling him, would not be sympathetic to Torres, a convicted felon on probation, if he claimed there were no drugs in the car, essentially branding two state troopers as either liars or incompetents. Because it could take months to prove the cough drops weren’t “drugs,” Torres recalls, Babcock told him he needed to prove that the backpack, and whatever was inside of it, wasn’t his.

Torres found this explanation maddening. But he wanted to follow his lawyer’s advice, to do whatever it took to get out of jail and back to his kids. Their birthdays had already passed, and now he was worried his children’s mother would use his continued incarceration against him in their custody dispute. So he bided his time in jail and waited for his chance to prove that he didn’t own the cocaine that didn’t exist.

For weeks, Babcock worked tirelessly and, for the most part, fruitlessly to secure Torres’s release. He asked Massachusetts Superior Court Justice William Sullivan for a reduction in bail, but was denied. Then, after stating that he’d ask for “presumptive release”—based on the risk of contracting COVID in jail—during a hearing with Quincy District Court Judge Mark Coven, Babcock managed to secure a bail reduction, decreasing it from $25,000 to $10,000 and putting it within reach for Torres’s family. But not even that was enough, due to Torres’s probation violation. As the weeks stretched on, and Torres worried about the possibility of picking up COVID in a crowded jail, Babcock filed a motion to dismiss Torres’s detention to the superior court.

Finally, in late September, Babcock was able to convince Sullivan that the police had failed to tie Torres to the backpack and, thus, to the purported drug-trafficking conspiracy. Sullivan agreed to dismiss Torres’s probation violation on those grounds, clearing the way for his release.

That still left the matter of the felony drug charges, which remained pending, casting a shadow over Torres’s and Laltaprasad’s futures. Here, Torres was right. Proving that the cough drops weren’t drugs would be the key. But how to do it? The official venue for challenging the evidence would be a criminal trial, but that could be months away. So Babcock made an atypical request. A few weeks earlier, he had called Norfolk County Assistant District Attorney John Looney, a prosecutor assigned to Torres’s case. According to two people familiar with the exchange, Babcock insisted that the “drugs” in this case were not drugs and implored his office to test the evidence immediately.

Looney told Babcock he would do what he could. And he did. The Norfolk County District Attorney’s office put in a request for expedited testing. That didn’t mean the test would happen right away—even expedited testing can take a while.

A few weeks later, the results were in. The report from state forensic scientist Erin Finch clearly stated that: “No controlled substances were indicated.” The test was negative. Below that unequivocal result, Finch included another note. Even though the “five ovals”—that is, the Halls cough drops—contained no controlled substances of any kind, Finch weighed them anyway, even including one of the wrappers. The total weight was 15.25 grams, well below the threshold for trafficking and not even close to the 19.09 grams recorded by Dailey and Gagnon.

The next day, at a hearing for the case, Norfolk County Assistant District Attorney Christopher Cook officially dropped the prosecutions of both men. “[D]ismissal of this case is in the interests of justice,” he wrote in a filing. Suddenly, the charges and the case were gone. Torres had spent close to six weeks in jail, lost his job, missed two of his children’s birthdays, and spent upward of $10,000 on an attorney—all for absolutely nothing.

There would be no consequences for Dailey and Gagnon, however. Even though they had locked two men up and charged them with felonies on the basis of no substantiated evidence, they have faced no discipline. In fact, the state police stand by their work. In a statement, Procopio said the state police “commonly see powder narcotics pressed into pill or tablet form” and that the white substances contained in the Halls wrappers were “consistent in appearance with suspected illegal narcotics.” When asked about the discrepancy between the weights recorded by the police and the forensic scientist, Procopio said, “I presume the weight on the police report is the gross weight of all five [ovals] with their packaging material.” It is not clear why packaging would count toward the official weight of narcotics—nor is it clear whether the packaging even weighed enough to account for the discrepancy. The state police do not claim to have any evidence in the case besides the five Halls cough drops and the male sexual enhancement pills, which the forensic scientist Erin Finch also tested, confirming that they indeed contained medications commonly used for erectile dysfunction. “Based on the totality of circumstances,” Procopio wrote, “the Troopers acted appropriately and lawfully in stopping the vehicle and charging the occupants.”

It was hot and sunny on the afternoon of September 29 when Laltaprasad pulled up to the Norfolk County Correctional Center in his beat-up Nissan Altima. It was the day of Torres’s release. As Torres walked outside into the sunlight, Laltaprasad felt a pang of guilt. He knew he had done nothing wrong, but it still pained him to know that Torres had landed in this mess just because he’d agreed to do Laltaprasad a favor back in August, just for being his friend. Torres climbed into Laltaprasad’s passenger seat. “Bro,” he said, as they hugged.

The two spent some time catching up, and as Laltaprasad pulled onto Route 24 to drive Torres home to Weymouth, he noticed a state police cruiser in the breakdown lane, parked behind a civilian car, making a traffic stop. Laltaprasad was in the right lane. He tried to move over to give the two cars space, but the left lane was full of traffic whizzing by and he couldn’t get over. As he drove past the cruiser, he saw its blue lights switch on. The cruiser pulled up close behind him. Great, another stop, Laltaprasad said to himself.

The young trooper—Laltaprasad thought he looked 23—asked for identification. He also asked where Laltaprasad and Torres were going, they recall. “Isn’t this a traffic stop?” Laltaprasad said. “We don’t need to talk about where we’re going.” Torres listened to the terse exchange silently. Then the trooper walked back to his cruiser to check the two men’s IDs.

While they waited for him to return, the road lit up with flashing blue lights. One, two, three, four—Torres counted the cruisers as they pulled up. He unlocked his phone and hit record as Laltaprasad muttered, “Call a lawyer.”