The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed the conviction of a Raynham man who was found guilty of fraudulent use of electricity. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. O’Donnell.
The defendant had received citations from the town of Raynham for improperly keeping junk and trash in his yard. Following these citations, the town building commissioner applied for an administrative inspection warrant to visit the property and ensure the defendant was in compliance with the Massachusetts Sanitary Code and local by-laws. On August 1, 2012, after obtaining the warrant, the building commissioner, a member of the town board of health, and a Raynham police sergeant traveled to the defendant’s property for the inspection. During the inspection, the town officials walked to the back of the property and observed air conditioners that were running. The officials were puzzled, because they believed the electricity to the property had been shut off following a fire. Believing criminal activity might be afoot, the building commissioner summonsed the town’s electrical inspector to the property and asked him to contact Taunton Municipal Lighting Plant (the power company). When the electrical inspector arrived, he followed the wires from the air conditioners and traced them to a nearby telephone pole. The sergeant took custody of an electrical cord that led into the house, a wire that had been connected to the telephone pole, and another “jumper wire” used to connect electricity to the air conditioning unit. The building commissioner took a number of photographs that were introduced at the defendant’s trial, where the jury found him guilty of fraudulently using electricity. Prior to trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress and argued the administrative search warrant had been improperly authorized and executed. The Appeals Court agreed the search exceeded the warrant and reversed the defendant’s conviction.
On appeal, the Commonwealth first made the disingenuous argument that the defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his backyard, and therefore it didn’t matter if the cops illegally searched the property. The Commonwealth’s argument derived from the fact that the defendant’s home had been previously damaged in a fire. The Appeals Court quickly dismissed that argument, concluding that a resident retains a significant privacy interest even in a home that has been damaged by fire. In this case, evidence established that the defendant continued to live in the home even after the fire damage occurred.
The Court next considered the defendant’s argument that the town officials had exceeded the scope of the administrative inspection warrant. The Court pointed out that a criminal search warrant, which requires the existence of probable cause to believe evidence of a crime will be located, is much different than an administrative inspection warrant, which allows only an inspection to ensure compliance with regulatory codes. An administrative inspection warrant is not permitted to allow for a general exploratory search for evidence of a crime, which is exactly what happened in this case. The administrative warrant allowed the building commissioner to inspect the property to ensure trash and junk were not present in the yard. As soon as the electrical inspector was called to the scene and asked to determine if the defendant was stealing electricity, the scope of the administrative warrant had been exceeded. The Court said upon suspecting electricity was being stolen, the sergeant should have secured the property and obtained a criminal search warrant. Because the defendant was convicted with illegally-obtained evidence, his conviction was overturned.