The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld the suppression order of a district court judge who concluded the search of an eager-beaver jail guard at the Plymouth County correctional facility was unconstitutional. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Garcia-German.
On an evening in August of 2014, an attorney arrived at the jail and met with two Hispanic men in the parking lot, who had driven to the jail in a BMW. The attorney and the two men went to the jail to post bail for an inmate. When the men went into the facility to begin the process of posting the bail, a jail guard named James Creed began snooping around the BMW. He peered inside the car and saw a prescription pill bottle, with its face down, in the map pocket on the driver’s side of the car. The guard used his considerable investigatory experience to shine his flashlight on the bottle and was able to determine there were two different types of pills contained therein. Perhaps believing he may have uncovered a crime of significance, the guard rushed back to the lobby of the jail and instructed the defendant to accompany him back to the BMW. After ordering the defendant to open the car, the guard opened the prescription pill bottle and found what appeared to be Oxycontin. The guard continued to search the interior of the vehicle and discovered heroin inside the center console and several hundreds of dollars in a storage area beneath the radio. The defendant was charged with several drug crimes, including possession with intent to distribute.
The defendant filed a motion to suppress the drugs, arguing that the eager-beaver guard had violated his constitutional rights by ordering him to open his car. A district court judge agreed and suppressed the drugs. The Commonwealth appealed and the Appeals Court affirmed. The Court concluded the guard did not have probable cause to believe the pill bottle contained an illegal substance simply from viewing its contents from outside of the car. It was not until the guard illegally ordered the defendant to open the car and turn over the pill bottle for inspection that the contraband was discovered. After losing that argument, the Commonwealth then suggested that any car entering a jail facility is subject to search by law enforcement officers. The Commonwealth pointed out there is a sign at the entrance of the jail parking lot advising motorists that all cars entering the lot are subject to search. However, the Appeals Court correctly noted that these types of searches must be conducted pursuant to a sufficiently-defined policy that takes away the discretion of an eager-beaver guard like the one who was snooping around the cars in the lot in this case. Here, the Appeals Court found there were no written policies that regulated the conduct of the searches of the vehicles in the jail’s parking lot. Instead, the search of the defendant’s car was triggered by the eager-beaver guard’s hunch (short of probable cause) that the prescription pill bottle might contain contraband. Accordingly, the actions of the eager-beaver guard were unconstitutional and the drugs he found will not be admitted at the defendant’s trial (which will likely cause the case to be dismissed).