Massachusetts Appeals Court Suppresses a Gun Found on a Defendant who was Mistakenly Arrested on a Warrant

The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled today that after Boston police officers arrested the defendant on the mistaken belief that he was the subject of an arrest warrant, the Commonwealth could not use any of the contraband found in his car, including a gun, against him at trial.  The case is Commonwealth v. Maingrette.

On September 10, 2012, Boston police officers assigned to the Youth Violence Task Force learned that the defendant had allegedly been involved in a domestic incident the night before in which he brandished a gun.  An officer checked the warrant management system (WMS) at 1:00 p.m. and learned that the defendant had not appeared that morning for a scheduled court date in Middlesex Superior Court, and a default warrant had issued for his arrest.  Several Boston police officers tried to locate the defendant and began waiting for him at an address that was listed on his driver’s license.   At 4:15, the defendant arrived at the address.  When he left the home and began driving away at 5:00, the police blocked his car, surrounded him, and arrested him.  A subsequent search of the trunk of the car revealed a loaded gun and other contraband which resulted in his being charged with carrying a loaded firearm without a license, illegal possession of ammunition, and receiving stolen property.

What the police apparently did not know when they arrested the defendant was that he had removed his default in Middlesex Superior Court approximately two hours earlier.  If any of the nine officers who were involved in the arrest had checked WMS between 3:00 and 5:00, they would have seen that there was no longer an active arrest warrant for the defendant.  By failing to confirm the warrant in WMS before arresting the defendant, the police officers violated an internal Boston police policy, which states that “immediately” before arresting someone on an outstanding warrant, officers are required to check WMS to ensure the outstanding warrant is still active.

Following a hearing in West Roxbury District Court, a judge ruled that neither the gun nor the other incriminating evidence could be used against the defendant.  The judge reasoned that the officers who were involved in the defendant’s arrest had plenty of time to check the status of his warrant, and by failing to do so, they violated the defendant’s constitutional right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure.

The Commonwealth appealed, arguing that the police had no reason to believe that the warrant had been recalled between 1:00 (when the warrant was active in WMS) and 5:00 (when the defendant was arrested).  The Appeals Court rejected the Commonwealth’s argument, noting that Massachusetts has not adopted a “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule (which states that evidence seized in an unconstitutional manner is generally not admissible at trial).  Instead, Massachusetts courts consider whether the violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights is substantial and prejudicial and whether exclusion of the evidence will deter future police misconduct.  In order for the violation to be excused and for the evidence to be admissible against the defendant, the Commonwealth must establish, among other things, that the mistake was reasonable under the circumstances and that the violation was minor.

Applying that test to the facts of this case, the Appeals Court found that the police officers’ mistake was not reasonable and the violation was not minor.  A large number of police officers, who all had access to WMS, failed to check the status of the warrant despite waiting and watching the defendant’s apartment for more than two hours.  The internal police policy that requires officers to confirm warrants immediately before an arrest is made is an acknowledgement that information in the WMS database can change quickly.  Finally, the defendant’s arrest constituted a substantial violation, in that the police officers’ mistake resulted in his liberty being revoked.

This case is yet another example of the importance of aggressively litigating pretrial motions to dismiss and suppress.  By winning the motion to suppress, the defendant will no longer be subject to the 18-month mandatory minimum jail sentence that accompanies a conviction for carrying a firearm without a license.