Articles Posted in Search and Seizure

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Last month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Massachusetts sex trafficking case discussing whether the lower court could compel the defendant to enter a password so that the prosecution could execute a search warrant that was obtained for the defendant’s cell phone. Ultimately, the court concluded that the defendant could be compelled to enter the password and that it was not a violation of his right to be free from self-incrimination.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was arrested on suspicion of sex trafficking. When he was arrested, the defendant had two cellular phones with him. The prosecution’s evidence suggested that the defendant used the phone to communicate with several women. The prosecution successfully obtained a warrant to search the contents of the phone. However, the phone was encrypted, and the prosecution did not have the technology necessary to unlock the phone. Thus, the prosecution sought to compel the defendant to unlock the phone. The defendant claimed that requiring him to enter the password would require he incriminate himself.

The lower court denied the prosecution’s request to compel the defendant to enter the password, and the prosecution appealed.

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Last month, a Massachusetts appellate court issued an opinion in a Massachusetts drug case describing the circumstances under which a strip search is appropriate. In this case, the court held that the strip search conducted by police was unsupported by probable cause, and violated the defendant’s constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable searches. Thus, the court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress the narcotics that were recovered as a result of the search.

According to the court’s opinion, police officers were in an unmarked car in a high-crime area conducting surveillance. During their surveillance, the officers noticed the defendant, who was standing on the sidewalk outside an apartment complex. Over the course of 20 minutes, the defendant went in and out of the house several times. At one point, an individual approached the defendant, and the two went around the corner for a few moments before returning. Police officers believed that the defendant was engaged in the sale of narcotics.

When another individual approached the defendant, police followed as the two men walked around the corner. One officer saw the two men standing face-to-face, and believed he was witnessing a drug transaction. The officers stopped the other man, searched him, and found a bag containing about $20 worth of cocaine. Police then patted the defendant down, finding $20, but no narcotics. Police arrested the defendant, transported him to the police station and booked him. Because the officer believed that it was common for street-level drug dealers to conceal narcotics in their groin area, the officers instructed the defendant to undress. Once the defendant was completely naked, the officers saw a red bandana, and inside the bandana were seven packets of cocaine.

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As a general rule, police officers must obtain a warrant to search someone’s home. However, over the years, courts have come up with several exceptions when police do not need to obtain a warrant to search a home. The most common exception police officers use to justify the immediate, warrantless search of a home is to claim that exigent circumstances warranted the search.

Under the exigent-circumstance exception, police can conduct a warrantless search of a home if they have reason to believe that there is not enough time to secure a search warrant. For example, police officers may cite exigent circumstances justify entry to prevent the destruction of evidence or potential harm to police or others. A recent state appellate decision limited police officers’ ability to rely on exigencies that were reasonably foreseeable results of their own actions.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, police received a call for an armed burglary and, after speaking with the homeowner, identified the defendant as a suspect. However, because the identification was made at the end of the investigating police officer’s shift, the officer left the search warrant application in the “next day” bin.

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As a general matter, police officers must be justified in their approach and questioning of a person. This includes both pedestrian stops as well as motor vehicle stops. Typically, an officer must be able to present articulable facts supporting the officer’s reasonable suspicion that the person who was stopped had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime.

Massachusetts courts have held, however, that when an officer is not investigating a crime but instead checking in on the wellbeing of a person (or the occupants of a vehicle) the questioning does not need to be supported by probable cause or reasonable suspicion. This is known as the community-caretaking exception. A few years ago, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a Massachusetts drug possession case discussing the community-caretaking exception. The case also provides an in-depth discussion of Massachusetts law as it pertains to drug-sniffing dogs.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant ran out of gas while driving on Route 140. A state trooper saw the defendant’s vehicle move into the breakdown lane with the hazard lights flashing so the trooper pulled behind it, engaging the cruiser’s blue emergency lights. The defendant exited his vehicle, explained he was out of gas, and asked what he should do. The defendant then called and asked a friend to bring him some gas.

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