Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Warrantless Seizure of Heroin Trafficker in Billerica

The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday upheld the heroin trafficking and school zone convictions against a man who was dealing heroin near an elementary school in Billerica.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Polanco.

During the spring months of 2013, Billerica police officers were investigating a heroin trafficking ring being run by a man nicknamed “Johnny.”  During the early part of the investigation, the police used informants to purchase drugs and were able to identify some of Johnny’s runners.  One of the runners agreed to cooperate with the investigation and, at the direction of Johnny, set up a drug deal on Rogers Street in Billerica, which is 281 feet away from the Hajjar Elementary School.  Immediately before the deal happened, the cops still did not know the true identity of Johnny and had not focused their investigation on the Rogers Street residence.  The cops set up surveillance and watched as the cooperating runner engaged in a hand-to-hand exchange with a man in the driveway of the subject home.  As soon as the hand-to-hand exchange was finished, the police moved in to confront the buyer.  As they approached the buyer, one of the officers noticed a man who matched the description of Johnny standing inside the open garage.  When he saw the police, the man, later identified as the defendant, turned around and ran away.  A detective, believing the defendant was the target of the investigation, chased him through the garage and into the backyard.  The backyard was enclosed by a fence and the defendant was trapped.  The detective took him into custody near the rear fence next to a shed located on a neighbor’s property.  When the police searched the immediate area, they located two bags of heroin weighing 19.06 grams near the neighbor’s shed.  The defendant was carrying more than $1,100 in cash.  A Middlesex County jury convicted the defendant of trafficking heroin in a school zone.

On appeal, the defendant argued the motion to suppress he filed prior to trial should have been allowed by the judge, as the detective’s warrantless entry into the garage and subsequent search violated his constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  The Appeals Court concluded the superior court judge properly denied the defendant’s motion.  When a police officer enters a home without a warrant, it is presumed to be an unreasonable search.  However, such conduct is permissible if there are so-called “exigent circumstances.”  In this case, the Court ruled that the police had probable cause to believe the defendant had committed a crime along with a reasonable belief that the defendant would remove evidence and escape if he was not chased through the garage and taken into custody.  The defendant argued that the police manufactured the exigency and should therefore not benefit from that exception to the warrant requirement.  The Court rejected this contention, pointing out that the cops had no reason to believe the defendant would be at the Rogers Street home and, in fact, did not know Johnny’s true name before he was arrested.  It would have been impossible for the cops to have predicted the situation would play out as it did.  Accordingly, the motion to suppress was properly denied and the defendant’s convictions were upheld.