Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Lowell Murder Convictions Resulting from Warrantless Search of Car

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the murder convictions of a defendant who committed an armed robbery in Lowell in October of 2009 and, later that night, shot two men to death during a home invasion.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Hernandez

On October 22, 2009, two women in Lowell reported they had been victims of an armed robbery where the assailant (later identified as the defendant) had stolen their purses at gunpoint.  The women were able to identify the make and color of the defendant’s car and provided the police with the license plate number and other identifying characteristics of the vehicle.  The women said the man who robbed them was Hispanic.  About six hours later, the police received a report of a home invasion that occurred approximately 50 yards away from the robbery.  The same car the defendant was driving during the robbery was used in the home invasion.  During the home invasion, the defendant shot and killed two of the residents (who were known drug dealers).

A Lowell police officer responded to the area of the crimes and began driving behind a vehicle that perfectly matched the robbery victims’ descriptions of the car involved in the robbery.  The officer stopped the car, which was being driven by the defendant, and waited for backup.  When other officers arrived, they approached the defendant’s car with their service weapons drawn.  The defendant was moving around in the passenger compartment and reached for the center console.  The officers pulled him and his passenger out of the car and handcuffed them.  The cops searched the car.  They didn’t find anything in the passenger compartment, but inside of the trunk was the gun used in the earlier robbery and murders.  The police had the robbery victims respond to the scene and they identified the defendant’s passenger as one of the robbers.  A superior court jury ultimately convicted the defendant of several crimes, including two counts of first-degree murder, home invasion, and armed robbery.  He appealed.

The defendant’s primary argument on appeal was the police had improperly searched the trunk of his car, and a superior court judge had erroneously denied his motion to suppress.  The superior court judge determined the gun was lawfully seized by the police and allowed it to be admitted into evidence at the defendant’s trial.  The Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the superior court judge that the police had constitutional grounds to search the car’s trunk and seize the gun.  While warrantless searches are presumed to violate the federal and state constitutions, there are numerous exceptions that allow the government to search without a warrant.  Two of those exceptions apply here – the automobile exception and the inevitable discovery exception.  The automobile exception states that a police officer can search a car without a warrant if the officer has probable cause to believe the car, which is parked in a public place and is capable of being moved, holds evidence of a crime or contraband.  In this case, the Court concluded the police officer who stopped and searched the car had probable cause to believe it would contain evidence related to the armed robbery.  The Court noted the officer: knew about the robbery that had happened earlier in the evening; had a very specific description of the defendant’s car; knew the robber was described as Hispanic (the defendant is Hispanic); and knew there had been a nearby home invasion involving the same car.  Additionally, the defendant began driving erratically after being followed by the officer.  The officer had sufficient information to allow him to stop and search the entire vehicle for evidence of a crime.

The Court said even if the search had been unlawful, the Commonwealth would be saved by the inevitable discovery rule.  The inevitable discovery doctrine says if the police would have inevitably discovered the evidence after an unconstitutional search, the evidence will not be suppressed unless the officers had earlier acted in bad faith.  In this case, the Court found if the officer had not immediately searched the car, the robbery victims still would have come to the scene to identify their assailants.  After they identified the passenger as having robbed them, the officers certainly would have been entitled at that point to search the car for the gun.  Therefore, the gun was properly seized and introduced at the defendant’s trial.

While the defendant was ultimately unsuccessful, this case demonstrates the importance of filing and aggressively litigating motions to suppress.  Had the judge agreed with the defendant, the gun would not have been admissible against him and the prosecutor’s case would have become considerably weaker.