Massachusetts Appeals Court Says Marijuana Seized Following an Illegal Search Still Admissible Due to Attenuation Doctrine

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today ruled that although North Adams police officers improperly entered the basement of a residence, the marijuana they discovered is still admissible because a defendant’s assault on one of the officers constituted an independent act that dissipated the taint of the unconstitutional search.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Suters.

In January of 2014, the police were called to a house in North Adams to investigate a potential flood.  Upon arrival, two police officers were invited into the house by an occupant who said her adult son needed help turning off the water in the basement.  The cops saw water leaking through a kitchen ceiling fan.  After calling the fire department for assistance, the officers went into the basement where they encountered a man who also lived in the house.  The man apologized to the officers and said he knew how to shut off the water.  He then opened a door that led into another room in the basement and walked inside, shutting the door behind him.  When one of the officers opened the door to enter the second room, the man pushed the door back against him.  In response, both officers grabbed the man and handcuffed him for assault and battery on a police officer.  As a result of the scuffle, the man and the two cops ended up in the second room and the cops observed a large amount of marijuana.  The police subsequently obtained a warrant to search the home, and additional marijuana and paraphernalia was discovered.  Three occupants of the home were charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana.

The defendants filed a motion to suppress, arguing the police did not have the constitutional authority to enter the second room in the basement.  Because the illegal entry led to the discovery of the marijuana (which led to the application for a search warrant that resulted in the discovery of even more marijuana), the defendants reasoned all of the marijuana should be suppressed.  A district court judge allowed the defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence and the Commonwealth appealed.  The Appeals Court reversed.

The Court determined the officers’ initial entry into the home was proper, as they were invited inside by an occupant.  It was also appropriate for the cops to go into the basement.  However, when another occupant of the home intercepted the police, told them he knew how to shut off the water, walked into the second room in the basement, and closed the door behind him, the police no longer had valid consent to go further into the home.  Under normal circumstances, therefore, the marijuana discovered by the police would not be admissible at the defendants’ trial because it was discovered as a result of the officers’ unconstitutional search.  This legal principle is called the exclusionary rule (or fruit of the poisonous tree).  In this case, though, one of the defendant’s actions in assaulting the police officer was an intervening act that constituted a new crime.  It’s true the police began entering the second room without constitutional authority, but their discovery of the marijuana did not happen until after the assault.  The Appeals Court concluded the exclusionary rule’s goal of deterring unlawful police conduct would not be served in this case, where an intervening criminal act led to the cops’ discovery of the contraband.