What is “Reasonable Suspicion,” and How Can it be Used to Justify a Warrantless Search?

The Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution protect Massachusetts residents from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement when a crime is being investigated. The most accepted and common way for law enforcement officers to ensure compliance with the Fourth Amendment is for them to obtain a valid search or arrest warrant from a judge before performing a search or making an arrest. For a judge to issue a search warrant, the applicant must demonstrate that there is probable cause that the search or arrest is valid. A properly obtained search warrant is difficult to challenge in a criminal prosecution, and evidence gained therefrom is generally admissible during a criminal trial.

Although a valid warrant sets the gold standard for a permissible search, there are exceptions to the warrant requirement which permit law enforcement officers to perform a search without a warrant. One exception exists when an officer is performing a brief investigatory stop of a criminal suspect. The Massachusetts Court of Appeal recently affirmed the conviction of a man who was searched and arrested for burglary after the responding officers approached and searched him without a valid warrant.

The defendant in the recently decided appeal was arrested about a block away from the scene of an alleged burglary. The defendant partially matched the description of the perpetrator as recounted by the victim from her observation of security camera footage taken of the alleged burglary. After the defendant was stopped and detained, the witness confirmed in person that he was the person that she witnessed burglarizing her home on the surveillance footage. The defendant was then searched, revealing that he possessed items stolen from the victim’s home, and he was arrested and charged with burglary.

Before he was tried on the charges against him, the defendant challenged the admissibility of the evidence obtained in the search. The defendant claimed that the search was invalid because no warrant was issued before the defendant was stopped and searched. The trial judge denied the defendant’s motion, ruling that the police officers were permitted to perform an investigatory stop of the defendant based upon the “reasonable suspicion” that he was involved in the recent crime. The defendant conditionally pleaded guilty to the charges against him after the denial of his suppression motion, appealing the motion ruling to a higher court.

The Court of Appeals later affirmed the trial court’s decision, finding that police officers are permitted to perform limited searches without a warrant, in the context of an investigatory stop, upon a finding of specific, articulable facts that evidence of a crime would be found in the search. Because the defendant met the description of the perpetrator and was found near the scene of the crime, the high court agreed that the warrantless search was acceptable. As a result of the appellate opinion, the defendant’s conviction will stand.

Have You Been Charged with a Massachusetts Property Crime?

If you have been arrested or charged with a property crime in Massachusetts, the government must prove all of the elements of the crime with admissible evidence. Evidence that has been obtained without a warrant may or may not be admissible in the proceedings against you. The Massachusetts criminal defense attorneys at the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy understand the rules of evidence and the constitutional protections afforded to criminal defendants, and we can fight to prevent the government from using evidence against you that was obtained without a valid warrant. Our firm represents clients facing all Massachusetts misdemeanors and felonies, including burglary and theft crimes. Contact our office at 617-367-0450 to schedule a free and confidential consultation with one of our lawyers.

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