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Search Warrants Obtained After Illegal Search in Massachusetts Meth Crime Case

Legal News GavelIn a recent Massachusetts appellate case, a trial court judge allowed a criminal defendant’s motion to suppress evidence that had been seized by police executing a search warrant after first making two warrantless searches of the defendant’s apartment.

The case arose when police received a report that there was a smell like drugs coming from the defendant’s apartment. Later, they got another complaint from a neighbor describing a skunky and a minty smell and claiming she could see a bright light inside. Two days later, detectives went to the apartment and met with the neighbor. Nobody answered the defendant’s apartment door. The detectives weren’t able to see inside, but they could smell chemicals from beneath a running air conditioner.

A complaining neighbor told the detectives that two people, a boyfriend and girlfriend, lived in the apartment, and they usually left together in the morning. On that morning, the neighbor had spotted the defendant leaving alone. The detectives got the girlfriend’s phone number but weren’t able to get in contact with her. They went into the apartment to look for her. The building’s owner’s son took them through the basement, where the smell got stronger. When nobody responded to the detectives identifying themselves, they went in.

Inside the apartment, they called for the girlfriend and saw objects associated with small scale production of meth. They were worried about the volatile chemicals used in meth production, so they called a colleague with more experience with meth labs. The colleague couldn’t tell from smell alone whether there was any danger, but he was worried that the smell came from the one pot method of meth manufacture, which presented an explosion risk. He didn’t find evidence of that method and determined there was no immediate threat.

The police got a search warrant, and while they were executing the warrant, the defendant came home. They arrested him and then questioned him at the police station. They told him his Miranda rights. He waived those and made incriminating remarks. They got a warrant based on seeing crystal meth manufacturing paraphernalia.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized under the search warrant and filed a motion to suppress statements he’d made to police after his arrest. The judge granted these motions after an evidentiary hearing. He decided that there had been no emergency to justify the first two warrantless entries. Therefore, there was no probable cause for the warrant. The judge also determined that what the defendant had said to the police was the fruit of his illegal arrest.

The Commonwealth appealed. The appellate court explained that a search performed without a warrant is presumptively unreasonable, but a warrantless search can be justified if there are certain circumstances that create an established exception to the requirement that a warrant is needed to search. Evidence seized based on an unreasonable search is supposed to be suppressed. The list of exceptions includes an exception to give emergency aid. This exception doesn’t require police to have probable cause a crime has been perpetrated because the reason for entry is to stop any immediate harm arising from a dangerous condition, rather than to investigate crime. In this case, the prosecutor argued that the first entry was justified based on the danger created by the smell. The police were worried about building residents and the defendant’s girlfriend.

However, the appellate court reasoned that before they entered, it wasn’t objectively reasonable for the police to decide there was an immediate danger of serious injury or death to someone. It also wouldn’t have been objectively reasonable to conclude any condition inside the apartment presented an explosion risk.

The prosecutor tried to justify the second warrantless entry based on observing drug paraphernalia during the first entry. The prosecutor argued that since they’d seen evidence the meth had been made inside the apartment, and it involved the use of volatile chemicals able to be exploded, the second entry was justified to determine the extent of the danger.

The appellate court determined the facts possessed by the police were insufficient to justify a warrantless entry. It also decided that it was permissible to suppress the defendant’s statements as fruit of the poisonous tree of illegal searches.  The appellate court affirmed the suppression order.

If you are charged with a drug 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.

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