Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Refuses to Adopt “Target Standing” Rule

In an important decision delivered today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declined to adopt the “target standing” rule, which would protect defendants against unconstitutional police activity designed to obtain evidence against them.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Santiago

The defendant was indicted and charged with distribution of a class B substance (cocaine), subsequent offense.  This is a serious charge that carries a mandatory minimum state prison sentence.  The defendant filed a motion to suppress the drugs and the superior court judge allowed the motion on the theory of target standing.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court reversed the allowance of the motion to suppress.

A Springfield police officer saw that defendant twice riding his bicycle in a high-crime area during a span of three days in May of 2102.  On the second day he saw the defendant, the officer watched as he got off of his bike and approached a man (Edwin Ramos) who had stepped out of a building’s entryway.  The defendant extended his arm toward Ramos, and Ramos then appeared to put something in his shirt pocket.  While the officer did not see a specific item in either man’s hand and did not observe an exchange, he concluded that they had engaged in a drug deal.  The officer and his partner immediately stopped the two men.  The officer reached into Ramos’s shirt pocked and found a small bag of cocaine.  As a result, Ramos was charged with possession of a class B substance and the defendant was charged with its distribution.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the cocaine that was seized by the police.  His problem was that he lacked “standing” to object to the police activity.  Standing is a legal principle that means a party (in this case the defendant) has a legal interest in the allegedly unlawful police conduct, and therefore can challenge the conduct in court.  A defendant in a criminal case can only challenge unconstitutional police activity if the activity was aimed at him.  Therefore, if a defendant is charged with murder and the murder weapon was found only after the police illegally searched the defendant’s friend’s home (where the murder weapon had been hidden), the defendant cannot file a motion to suppress the weapon because the unconstitutional conduct of the police was aimed at the defendant’s friend, not the defendant.  One exception to this rule is “automatic standing,” which applies when the defendant is charged with a possessory offense.  As an example, if a defendant is in a friend’s car and the police unlawfully search the car’s trunk, find a gun, and charge the defendant with possessing the gun, the defendant has automatic standing to challenge the search of the car (even though it wasn’t his car and he did not have a privacy interest in the car).

The defendant in this case argued that he should be permitted to challenge the police search of Ramos under the principle of “target standing,” which allows a defendant who is the “target” of the search to contest its legality even if he was not the subject of the illegal search.  The United States Supreme Court has rejected target standing and according to the SJC, only Alaska and Louisiana have adopted the principle.

The SJC said a defendant may rely on the standing of a third party (Ramos in this case) only when the police engage in “distinctly egregious” conduct that is a significant violation of the third party’s rights in order to obtain evidence against the defendant.  The Court concluded that the officer in this case had reasonable suspicion that a drug deal had occurred and was entitled to stop the men and ask them questions.  While conceding that it was improper for the officer to immediately reach into Ramos’s shirt pocket, the Court concluded that it was not an “egregious” violation of his rights.  Therefore, the defendant could not challenge the search of Ramos to suppress the cocaine.

As a result of this case, the Commonwealth will be rewarded with the convictions of drug dealers when the police unconstitutionally search buyers to obtain evidence against the dealers.