Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Search of Defendant’s Backpack in East Bridgewater Home Invasion

The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday agreed with a superior court judge that the stop of a home invasion suspect, and a subsequent search of his backpack, was supported by reasonable suspicion and therefore constitutional.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Hilaire

On July 29, 2014, there was an armed home invasion in East Bridgewater at around 3:05 a.m.  The perpetrators stole jewelry and a large amount of cash.  The police were told the suspects were several young black males, and two of the men were carrying backpacks.  The men were described as wearing “regular clothes,” but no other details about their appearance were provided.  Many police officers responded to the scene of the home invasion and began searching for the suspects.  During the next five hours, a woman was seen driving in the area three different times.  She told two different officers she was lost (the first two times she was spotted) and on her third trip near the scene she said she was on her way back to her mother’s friend’s house.  The officer who spoke to her the third time looked at a cell phone in the car and saw a text message asking, “did you pick him up yet?”  The woman claimed the phone did not belong to her.  She agreed to go to the police station to be questioned by the cops.  At a little past 5:00, the first suspect was taken into custody by the police.  At around 9:00 (approximately six hours after the home invasion), the police discovered the defendant, who is black, walking on a sidewalk approximately half a mile from the crime scene while wearing a backpack.  A cop told the defendant he wanted to look in the backpack and the defendant acquiesced.  There was cash and jewelry inside.  The defendant was arrested and indicted on multiple counts of armed home invasion, armed and masked robbery, and unlawful possession of a gun.  He filed a motion to suppress the evidence discovered during the search of his backpack and a superior court judge denied the motion.  He appealed and the Appeals Court upheld the denial of his motion to suppress.

The Court concluded the defendant was seized at the moment the cop said he wanted to look inside the backpack.  The legal question is whether, at that moment, reasonable suspicion existed that the defendant had participated in the home invasion.  The defendant argued the description of the suspects (several young black men wearing regular clothes, two with backpacks) lacked specificity to allow the police to conclude he had participated in the crime.  The Court agreed that the description alone was too vague to support seizing the defendant in this case.  However, the Court reasoned that the woman who repeatedly circled the area and possessed a phone containing a text message about picking someone up probably was involved in transporting one of the suspects from the scene.  Further, given the seriousness of the crime, it was proper for the police to stop the defendant.  Accordingly, the Court ruled the defendant’s motion to suppress was properly denied.

This is a really shaky decision from the Appeals Court.  About six hours had passed between the crime and the defendant’s seizure, and the description of the perpetrators was incredibly vague.  The defendant wasn’t particularly close to the scene of the crime (half a mile away), and there are not other facts supporting an inference that the defendant was involved in the home invasion.