Witness Identification of Defendant in Massachusetts Burglary

In Commonwealth v. Coughlin, the jury convicted the defendant of breaking and entering a building at night and possessing tools to commit burglary. The defendant was drinking with his friend in Beverly. The friend drove him to Peabody and waited for him while the defendant broke into a used car dealership. The defendant was unaware that the building wasn’t empty. The service manager and his girlfriend were staying overnight inside the service manager’s car inside the dealership.

The service manager and his girlfriend heard glass break and witnessed a man in dark clothes go behind the counter. The defendant was looking around when the service manager opened the garage door and honked his horn. The defendant escaped through a window and went back to his friend’s truck, telling him they should hurry and go. The defendant’s hand was cut and bleeding. The friend drove him back. However, the service manager followed behind them and reported the friend’s license plate number to the police.

The police found the truck was registered to the friend’s name. The service manager and his girlfriend identified the truck, but they said that the friend wasn’t the person they’d seen inside the dealership that night. The friend later spoke to an officer and confessed that he’d driven someone to the dealership. He took the police to the defendant’s Beverly apartment, and the friend identified him based on a Facebook photograph on the day after the break-in. Later, he identified him in court. The prosecutor didn’t bring criminal charges against the friend.

At trial, the defense argued that the friend wasn’t a credible witness and had identified the defendant in order to avoid criminal charges. The defendant moved to suppress the friend’s identification of him from the Facebook photograph. He argued that showing the friend one photograph out of court was suggestive and likely to lead to a mistaken identification. The defendant moved to suppress the in-court identification as well on the grounds that it was tainted by the Facebook identification.

After an evidentiary hearing, a judge found that the friend knew the defendant, that they had spent the night drinking before the friend drove him to the dealership, and that the friend had an opportunity to observe the defendant at the time the crime was committed. The judge determined the police used no suggestive methods. He found that the identification procedure used wasn’t conducive to a mistaken identification, and the suppression of that identification wasn’t appropriate.

The appellate court found no error. It explained that the finding that the defendant and friend knew each other and were together at the time of the break-in was well-supported. An officer testified that during his interview with the friend, he learned that he and the defendant went to the same bar and were drinking acquaintances. The friend was able to give a detailed physical description of the defendant from the night of the break-in.

The appellate court also ruled that the officer’s method of using a Facebook identification was not suggestive. The officer said nothing to the friend before handing him the photo, and as soon as he saw it, the friend identified the defendant by name. It explained that since the witness and the defendant already knew each other before the event in question, there was little risk of mistaken identification. The traditional identification procedures like lineups and photographic arrays were designed for witnesses who hadn’t before seen a suspect or may have seen the suspect before but in a limited way. The court found this identification was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. For this and other reasons, the judgment was affirmed.

If you are charged with a property 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

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