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Probable Cause in Massachusetts Drug Crime Cases

file0001336124698.jpgIn Commonwealth v. Jovani A. Garcia, the defendant was charged with possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. Two detectives were doing undercover surveillance in a “high crime area” at the prompting of neighbor complaints. One detective was in an unmarked vehicle, while another was near a residential building.

A detective saw a car turn right on the street, stayed still, drove north, and then made a U-turn to drive south again. Around the same time, a man came out of the building. The detectives were familiar with him. They described him as “light-skinned” and “Spanish.” The man got into the car’s back seat. The car traveled a short distance and stopped, whereupon the man got out and went back inside the building and the car drove off.

The police believed they’d just witnessed a drug transaction. They radioed takedown detectives to stop the car. At the stop, the takedown officers discovered 3-4 bags of crack cocaine on the front seat.

The occupants of the car were put under arrest, while the detectives continued their surveillance. A detective saw another vehicle drive onto the street, make a U-turn, and then park. The detective believed that the same man who had previously left the building to get in the other car, and then reentered the residential building, came out and got in the back seat.
The detectives radioed the takedown detectives and told them to stop the car if it made a third right turn. They told the takedown officers to place the male in the car under arrest for a prior distribution. The takedown officers stopped the car at the intersection and told the detectives that the suspect, driver, and passenger were in custody and that they’d found five small bags of crack cocaine.

At the police station, one of the detectives realized that the suspect who got in the second car was not the same as the suspect who got in the first car. It turned out that the second man was the defendant in this case, Jovani A. Garcia, and he was the brother of the first man.

After an evidentiary hearing, the judge permitted Garcia’s motion to suppress. The Commonwealth appealed. The appellate court analyzed the record to determine whether the lower court’s findings were supported. The Commonwealth argued that the detectives’ observations gave rise to probable cause to arrest Garcia for drug distribution and that the police could stop the car for that purpose. The Commonwealth found there was so much similarity between the behaviors of the two cars, the first of which had also contained drugs, that the detectives had good reason to believe the man who came out of the residential building was committing a drug crime.

The appellate court, however, found that the two events were not similar in a critical respect, and so the stop for purposes of arresting the defendant was unjustified. When the detective had asked the takedown detectives to stop the second car, he told them to do so when the car turned onto a specific street on the assumption that the car would be dropping a suspected dealer back at his operations base. However, the takedown detectives had stopped the second car in the intersection, rather than waiting for the turn. Therefore, it couldn’t be concluded that the Commonwealth had probable cause to arrest the defendant who had gotten into the car, and the stop was illegal. The motion to suppress evidence from the stop was affirmed.

If you are charged in Massachusetts with drug possession, contact the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy today to discuss the criminal charges. Call us at 617-367-0450 or contact us through this website.

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