The Massachusetts Appeals Court today ruled Boston police officers acted unlawfully in chasing a man involved in a marijuana investigation into his house after he fled the scene. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Martin.
In April of 2012, the defendant was one of three men smoking marijuana in a parked car in Dorchester. The car was filled with smoke and there was condensation on the rear windshield. When Boston cops approached the vehicle, the defendant (who was sitting in the front passenger seat) opened his door. Smoke billowed from the car and the officers smelled a strong odor of burnt marijuana. One of the cops ordered the defendant to stay in the car, where there was visible evidence establishing the presence of marijuana. The defendant appeared nervous and told the cop he was going to throw up. When asked, the defendant told the police his name and date of birth, and also said he had previously been arrested. Backup officers were summonsed to the scene. Approximately seven or eight minutes unto the investigation, one officer was patfrisking another occupant of the car when the defendant ran toward a nearby residence. Three officers pursued him and yelled at him to stop, but the defendant kept running into the building, which was later determined to be his home. The defendant ran through the kitchen and into the dining room, where he was tackled by the cops. When asked why he had run, the defendant told the police he had a gun in his pocket. He was arrested and charged with illegally carrying a firearm.
Once the defendant’s case was pending in the Boston Municipal Court, he filed a motion to suppress the gun, arguing the police lacked the constitutional authority to chase him into his house. The Commonwealth argued there were exigent circumstances that allowed for the warrantless entry. A Boston Municipal Court judge ruled the police conduct was constitutional and denied the defendant’s motion. The Appeals Court reversed.
The Court first concluded the police had the right to detain the defendant for a long enough period of time to write him a civil citation for possession of marijuana (possession of small amounts of marijuana is no longer a crime in Massachusetts). The length of time the defendant had been detained (seven or eight minutes) also was not unreasonable, said the Court. The question, then, was whether there were exigent circumstances present that would allow for the cops to enter the defendant’s house without a warrant. There is an exception to the warrant requirement when the police are in “hot pursuit” of a criminal suspect. However, the exception applies only to those individuals who are being chased because they are suspected of committing a jailable misdemeanor or a felony. In this case, the defendant was suspected only of committing a civil violation that is neither a felony nor a jailable misdemeanor. Further, there was not probable cause for the police to believe the defendant had committed any crimes as he was running into his house or that he did not live in the house (he entered through a door without using force or a key).
Because the cops unlawfully followed the defendant into his house, the gun they recovered from the defendant’s pocket will not be admissible at his trial. This is an example of good pretrial lawyering that will result in the dismissal of a case. If you are charged with a gun offense, it is important that you immediately consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney.