The Massachusetts Appeals Court today ruled it was proper for police officers to question a man who was under investigation for his role as an alleged pimp about a hotel key found in his pocket when he was placed under arrest. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Barbosa.
State and federal law enforcement authorities were investigating a human trafficking ring in Boston. There are state and federal crimes that prohibit people from “trafficking persons for sexual servitude,” which is a fancy way of saying it’s illegal to work as a pimp. Laws have recently been amended to mandate very long prison sentences for people who are convicted of working as pimps. In this case, the defendant was the target of the human trafficking investigation. On May 7, 2015, undercover officers responded to an online advertisement that offered the services of a prostitute. The officers were instructed to meet the prostitute at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston. They did so and, as instructed, went to room 540 where they spoke to the woman who answered the door. When the woman learned her ad had been answered by cops, she started to cry and shake and said, “you guys can’t be here. He’s coming.”
While some of the officers spoke to the woman in the room, other officers were in the hallway and saw the defendant exit an elevator on the fifth floor and walk toward room 540. The officers recognized the defendant as being the target of the investigation. One of the officers identified himself as a cop and asked to speak to the defendant. The defendant said he didn’t want to talk, put his hands on the cop’s shoulders, pushed him out of the way, and ran toward the elevators. Other officers in the hallway subdued the defendant, placed him on the ground, and handcuffed him. Once he was handcuffed, the officers searched the defendant’s pockets incident to the arrest. The cops found around $500 in cash, a knife, and a hotel room key. They asked the defendant what room the hotel key was for, and he said room 540. The defendant then said he wanted a lawyer and questioning ceased. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the statement he made confirming the key opened the door to room 540. A Suffolk Superior Court judge allowed the motion to suppress and the Commonwealth appealed. The Appeals Court reversed.
The superior court judge ruled it was proper for the cops to interact with the defendant in the hallway. After the defendant pushed one of the officers, it was proper for the defendant to be placed under arrest. Once the defendant was under arrest, it was appropriate for the cops to search his pockets and, therefore, the seizure of the hotel room key was constitutional. However, according to the superior court judge, the police should not have been allowed to ask the defendant questions about the room key because the room key was unrelated to the crime with which he was being charged (assault and battery on a police officer). The law in Massachusetts says that while items may be seized from a defendant during a search incident to arrest, the police may not generally conduct new investigations related to those items if they are not related to the charged crime. The Appeals Court held that there was “ample evidence” of the defendant’s involvement in the human trafficking ring that was the subject of the cops’ investigation. Because the evidence established an obvious potential connection between the defendant and the prostitute in room 540, the police had the right to ask questions about evidence that could be connected to the human trafficking investigation. Accordingly, ruled the Appeals Court, the defendant’s statement that the room key was connected to room 540 should not have been suppressed.
The case will return to Suffolk Superior Court for further proceedings.