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Fingerprint Evidence in Massachusetts Larceny Case

fingerprintIn a recent Massachusetts appellate case, the defendant was found guilty of breaking and entering in the daytime, intending to commit a felony in violation of MGL chapter 266, § 18, as well as larceny of property over $250, a violation of MGL chapter 266, § 30 (1). The defendant appealed on the ground that the evidence was not enough to support the convictions.

The case arose from a 2013 break-in and robbery at a market. At trial, a store proprietor testified she’d closed the store at 6:00 p.m. one night and then come back after being told there was a break-in. She saw that somebody had broken the side window to get in and that $400-500 worth of cigarettes were stolen.

At the trial, police officers also testified. One testified he got there with his partner early in the morning, and when they got there, two men who lived next door to the market told them the front window to the store was missing. The officer noticed that a window pane had been taken off and was set against the door. Photographs showed that plexiglass was propped against the front door.

An officer stated that when the glass was intact in its frame, the top of it was over six feet from the ground. He saw a milk crate that might have been used to climb through the window. Inside, he saw that several things that should have been shelved were lying on the floor.

Another detective testified that he’d responded to the scene and gotten a fingerprint from the plexiglass. He testified that it was from a portion of plexiglass that was high up, located around five feet and eight inches off the ground, based on how he thought the glass would be positioned in the frame. On cross-examination, he acknowledged he wasn’t certain where the top of the glass and where the bottom were. He testified he’d taken photos inside the market but didn’t dust further.

A detective trained in fingerprint analysis testified that a fingerprint taken from the plexiglass matched a known sample provided by the defendant. However, he also testified that fingerprints can stay on a surface for a long time period.

The appellate court explained that when a defendant’s fingerprint is the only identification evidence, the prosecution must show beyond a reasonable doubt that it was put in the place where it was recovered during the crime. The prosecution has to present not only the fingerprint, in other words, but also evidence that reasonably excludes the possibility that the fingerprint was placed in a location at some other time.

In this case, the appellate court didn’t believe the prosecution had done that. It reasoned that in earlier cases in which a fingerprint provided the only identification of the defendant as the perpetrator of a crime, other evidence corroborated finding that it was impressed upon a surface during the crime.

In this case, the officer estimated that the top of the plexiglass was more than six feet and four inches higher than the ground. The detective estimated that the fingerprint’s location was between five feet, eight inches and six feet off the ground. This presumed the fingerprint was located on the part of the plexiglass that was the farthest from the ground and the least accessible.

However, the evidence didn’t conclusively establish which part of the plexiglass was at the top and which part was at the bottom. The detective was uncertain. Even if the fingerprint was close to the top of the window, it was only at most six feet from the ground, which wasn’t so high it couldn’t be a result of an accidental touch on a different occasion. Plus, the plexiglass was accessible to people going by once it was taken from its frame and leaned against the market door. The record didn’t show which time the proprietor went to the market and saw the glass taken from the frame.

The appellate court found that the prosecution hadn’t established beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant impressed his fingerprint during the break-in, so the judgment was reversed.

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