Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Suppresses Contraband Discovered in Safe Pursuant to Invalid Search Warrant

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled a Worcester Superior Court judge improperly denied a defendant’s motion to suppress a gun and other contraband found in a safe in his car, where there was no nexus between the safe and the defendant’s drug activities.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Mora

One night in the summer of 2014, a Worcester police officer was conducting surveillance in the city when he saw a man appearing to sell drugs in a convenience store parking lot.  The lot was known to the police as being a location where frequent drug deals occurred.  At some point during his surveillance, the cop saw the defendant drive into the lot in a station wagon.  The defendant got out of his car and walked toward the suspected drug dealer.  As the two men stood together, a third man walked up to the drug dealer and appeared to engage in a brief transaction with him while the defendant nervously looked around.  The defendant then got back into his station wagon with the drug dealer and began to drive away.  The cops stopped his car and patfrisked the defendant, who was found to possess several hypodermic needles.  The police learned the defendant’s driver’s license was suspended and officers searched his car, finding more needles, drug paraphernalia, and a small safe on the floor behind the driver’s seat.  No illegal drugs were located in the car or on the defendant’s person.  The defendant was arrested for driving with a suspended license and the police took custody of the safe.  Officers were able to tell there was a heavy metal object contained therein, and they obtained a search warrant to open it.  In applying for the search warrant, the officers testified that heroin addicts are often thieves, and drug dealers often keep contraband (including drugs, firearms, and money) inside of safes.  A clerk magistrate issued a search warrant for the safe and officers found a gun, a large capacity feeding device, ammunition, and drug evidence, which resulted in various criminal charges against the defendant.  He filed a motion to suppress, arguing there was insufficient evidence to establish probable cause for the search warrant to have issued.  A superior court judge denied the defendant’s motion and the Commonwealth appealed.  The Supreme Judicial Court reversed.

The Court concluded the cops’ affidavit in support of the search warrant established probable cause that they had witnessed drug deals in the parking lot of the convenience store.  The question, then, was whether the illegal drug transactions were probably connected to the safe in the defendant’s car.  The Court said there was no nexus between the drug dealing activities and the safe.  First of all, the safe was in the defendant’s car, not the drug dealer’s.  The Court pointed out there was no evidence the drug dealer had previously been in the defendant’s car or had previous access to the safe.  It was also not clear the drug dealer would have been able to reach the safe from where he was sitting in the vehicle.  A patfrisk of the defendant revealed hypodermic needles, which are consistent with drug use, not drug dealing.  Because the safe appeared to be connected to the drug user and not the drug dealer, there was an insufficient nexus between the illegal activity and the contents of the safe.  Accordingly, the objects found in the safe will be inadmissible at trial and the Commonwealth will be forced to dismiss the case.

Motions to suppress are common in drug cases, and if a motion is allowed it will often cripple the Commonwealth’s case.  If you are charged with a drug offense, you should immediately call an experienced criminal defense lawyer.