Massachusetts Appeals Court Reverses Pawn Shop Larceny Conviction Resulting From Suggestive Identification Procedure

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed an alleged thief’s conviction for stealing an elderly woman’s jewelry because the investigating police officer conducted an improper identification procedure of the defendant.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Carlson

A woman in her 70s and her spouse hired a moving company to help with the move from their single-family Templeton home to a condominium in Hubbardston.  The day after the move, the woman called the police to report that 17 pieces of jewelry worth approximately $30,000 had gone missing.  A Templeton detective began investigating the theft and determined the defendant was one of the two moving men.  The detective spoke to the defendant’s partner, who was a long-term employee of the moving company (the defendant worked for the company only for the day).  The partner told the detective that the defendant had been alone in the room containing the jewelry.  Further, when the partner offered to drive the defendant home after the move, the defendant requested to be dropped off at a pawn shop near his house.  The defendant told his partner he was going to pay for a car radio at the pawn shop notwithstanding the fact that the defendant did not own a car.  The detective traveled to the pawn shop and asked the owner whether anyone had pawned jewelry on the date of the move.  The owner said a man he had previously dealt with had dropped off jewelry as collateral for a short-term loan.  The owner then asked the detective to see a picture of the suspect and the detective produced the defendant’s picture.  The owner positively identified the defendant as the person who had pawned the jewelry.  The victim later identified the pawned jewelry as her stolen property.  A Worcester Superior Court jury convicted the defendant of larceny over $250.

The sole issue on appeal was whether the defendant’s motion to suppress his identification by the pawn shop owner should have been allowed prior to trial.  The defendant argued his due process rights were violated because by showing the owner a single photograph (of the defendant) instead of a traditional photo array (containing pictures of multiple men), the detective had engaged in an identification procedure that was unnecessarily suggestive.  The Appeals Court agreed and reversed the defendant’s conviction.  The Court noted that when a police officer shows a single photograph to a witness, it is akin to a showup identification procedure (which is when a police officer brings a witness to a crime scene to look at a single suspect).  Showup procedures are disfavored because they are inherently suggestive.  However, trial judges regularly allow showup procedure evidence to be admitted at trial (and appellate judges regularly affirm such decisions) by ruling there is good cause to justify the use of the suggestive procedure.  Good cause exists when: there is a violent crime and public safety demands a quick identification of the perpetrator; and there is a need for efficient police investigation immediately following a crime.  In this case, the Appeals Court pointed out the defendant was charged with a property crime instead of a crime of violence; there were no immediate safety concerns; the identification was not made promptly following the crime; and there was no reason the identification needed to be made immediately.  Because good cause did not exist for the inherently suggestive showup-style identification procedure, the defendant’s motion to suppress his identification by the pawn shop owner should have been allowed.

The case will be remanded to Worcester Superior Court for the prosecutor to determine if the defendant can be tried again without the identification evidence.