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Probable Cause to Believe a Joint Venture Crime Has Been Committed

escalatorIn Commonwealth v. Sanchez, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts appealed from orders that granted motions to suppress evidence that was seized during the search of codefendants. There were four companion cases.

The issue in the case was whether the police had enough of a basis to believe that the codefendants were joint venturers with Jose Rotger, a man who’d broken into a car and stolen objects from it while the codefendants stood nearby. On the evening of the theft, the codefendants and Rotger were walking down the street. Rotger looked into a parked car. The codefendants didn’t look into the car but stood nearby looking around. The three men kept walking, but Rotger looked into another car, while again the codefendants stood nearby.

At this car, the defendant opened the passenger door, reached into the car, and then closed the door, leaving it unlocked. The three continued down the street. Officers who were watching them thought they were handing something back and forth. They ran the license plate of the car and found it was registered to a woman.

Ten minutes later, the men went into the nearby Tufts Medical Center station. Rotger used a credit card to buy a ticket, and the three men went up the escalator. They were stopped by the police. The man tried to put the credit card into the back of his pants, but an officer grabbed his arm. He was found to have multiple cards, including a bank debit card that was in the name of the woman who owned the car. The men were put under arrest and searched. One of the codefendants and Rotger had items that belonged to the woman who owned the car, and Rotger also had some cocaine.

The appellate court explained that the initial stop at the top of the escalator could be considered an investigatory stop that was justified by the officers’ reasonable suspicion that a crime had been committed. It explained that in order to frisk the defendants, the police officers had to reasonably suspect the stopped individual was armed and dangerous. The Commonwealth did not produce evidence that the police feared for their safety or suspected the men were armed. For that reason, the court found that the arrest and subsequent search had to be supported by the police officers’ probable cause to believe that one of the codefendants and Rotger were joint venturers when Rotger broke into the car.

The appellate court concluded that there was probable cause and that it was wrong for the judge to allow the motions to suppress. It explained the police had probable cause to arrest Rotger for breaking into a vehicle. They’d seen him look into a first car and then into a second car. They also saw him open the second car’s door and lean into the car. They determined the car belonged to a woman who lived in Lowell. Those facts rightly caused the officers to conclude he broke into a vehicle that belonged to someone else with the intent of committing a crime. Finding the credit card in Rotger’s hand after he tried to hide it confirmed what was obvious.

To establish probable cause to believe the defendants were joint venturers, the Commonwealth had to show they knowingly participated in the commission of the crime at issue. The court explained that you could have joint venture liability for agreeing to stand by a crime scene to serve as a lookout. Presence alone doesn’t establish knowing participation in a crime. However, in this case, the defendants were looking around while Rotger acted in such a way that he seemed to be choosing a target. After he stole from the second car, the codefendants continued to hang out with him and handed something back and forth with him. The totality of the circumstances gave the officers probable cause to believe the codefendants had knowingly participated with Rotger. The appellate court reversed the orders that allowed the motions to suppress.

If you are charged with a theft crime in Massachusetts, 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.

More Blog Posts:

Assault and Battery Causing Serious Injury in Massachusetts, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published January 14, 2015

Receiving Stolen Property in Massachusetts, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published December 15, 2014