Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Overturns Burglarious Instrument Convictions Citing Insufficient Evidence

In a 4-3 decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed convictions against two men who were found guilty of possessing burglarious tools as they walked along railroad tracks in Norton in the middle of a freezing February night in 2013.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Squires

On the evening in question, an undercover Norton police officer watched the two defendants park in a closed shopping plaza and walk through an alley toward a rear parking lot.  When backup officers arrived, they followed the defendants’ footprints in the snow and found them walking along a set of train tracks that was bordered on both sides by commercial buildings.  The cops confronted the defendants, who claimed they were simply out for a stroll.  During subsequent searches, the officers found each defendant possessed walkie-talkies tuned to the same channel.  One of the defendants carried a backpack containing a crowbar, a screwdriver bar, a pair of gloves, and a small flashlight.  The police also searched the defendants’ vehicle and found more gloves and a small sledgehammer.  Finally, the defendants were in possession of a handmade map depicting what appeared to be an L-shaped building and the words “going in” along with arrows that appeared to point to an entrance.  The defendants were arrested and at their trial, a jury convicted them of walking on railroad tracks and possession of burglarious instruments.  The defendants appealed the burglarious instruments convictions, arguing there was insufficient evidence for their support.  By the slimmest of margins, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed and reversed.

The Commonwealth was obligated to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the defendants: intentionally possessed a tool that could reasonably be used to break into a building or a place were valuables are kept, and the defendants intended to steal from that place.  While the tools here were not inherently burglarious in nature, the Court noted the Commonwealth could still prove the elements of the crime if the defendants’ guilty intentions could be established.  However, the presence of merely suspicious circumstances is not enough to support a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.  In this case, the SJC agreed the defendants were acting suspiciously by walking on the train tracks late at night in freezing weather.  However, according to the majority, their suspicious conduct did not prove they intended to use their tools to break into a building.  The men stayed on the tracks as they were being followed by the cops, and importantly, their hand-drawn map did not appear to depict any of the buildings on the sides of the tracks.  The jury’s guilty verdicts required an unacceptable level of speculation, and the SJC said the convictions must be overturned.

Three justices dissented.  They argued the defendants’ actions on the night in question established evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that they intended to break into one of the buildings located next to the tracks.  The defendants possessed all of the tools necessary to aid in a burglary, according to the dissent, and their explanation of being outside “just for a stroll” was not reasonable given the area, the weather, and the time of night.

Ultimately, the defendants needed only four justices’ votes to reverse their convictions at the SJC, and they barely pulled it off.