Massachusetts Appellate Court Affirms Lower Court Motion to Suppress Decision in Illegal Search Case

  • In a recent Massachusetts appellate court opinion regarding a motion to suppress evidence from an illegal search, the court upheld the trial court granting of the defendant’s motion to suppress, albeit on different grounds. At trial, the judge allowed the motion on the ground that the driver of the vehicle did not commit a traffic violation warranting the stop. The appeals court instead found that the search of the defendant’s wallet was unlawful, and the evidence obtained therefrom was correctly suppressed. The defendant’s ensuing statements and the drugs recovered from his person were fruits of the unlawful search and, as such, were also correctly suppressed.

Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, in the late afternoon of November 20, 2020, members of the State Police gang unit were patrolling downtown Brockton in an unmarked cruiser. The troopers took note of a car parked at a gas station and, after running the license plate, learned it was a rental vehicle. The troopers then decided to follow the car. After following the car for a period of time, the officers activated their emergency lights and stopped the car, purportedly for failure to stop at a red light. Upon approaching the passenger side of the car, the troopers recognized the front seat passenger as the defendant, based on an intelligence bulletin they had received from the Brockton Police Department.

Seeing that the defendant was not wearing his seat belt, the troopers asked him for identification and spotted a large pocketknife in his pocket when he reached for his wallet. They then ordered the defendant out of the car. The officers handcuffed him and conducted a pat frisk, which revealed no weapons. When they again asked the defendant for identification, he stated that it was in his wallet, which he had left on the passenger seat of the car. When an officer retrieved the wallet, he noticed a folded twenty-dollar bill tucked in one of the card slots. Based on his training and experience, he guessed that the bill was used to hide narcotics. The officer then unfolded the bill and found a white powdery substance and asked the defendant if it was fentanyl, to which the defendant replied that it was “coke” or “powder.” The officer then told the defendant that if he voluntarily turned over any more drugs that the troopers would summons him instead of arrest him. The defendant relinquished additional bags of cocaine from his body.

The Decision

At trial, the defendant moved to suppress on numerous grounds, including that there was no justification for the initial stop of the car or the later search of his wallet. The trial court judge allowed the motion based solely on the stop and did not address the defendant’s other arguments. The appellate court declined to resolve that question, instead affirming on the other grounds raised by the defendant, namely that the search of his wallet was unlawful. The appellate decision stated that the burden was on the Commonwealth to prove that the search of the wallet fell within an exception to the warrant requirement, and the Commonwealth failed to meet that burden for at least two reasons. (1) Assuming that the troopers had safety concerns, the Commonwealth offered no evidence to support the opening of the wallet based on that claim. (2) Further, assuming opening the wallet was permitted, searching and seizing the bill within the wallet was not permitted without a warrant. Given those reasons, the appeals court ruled that the search of the defendant’s wallet was unlawful, and the evidence was correctly suppressed, affirming the lower court decision.

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