The Massachusetts Appeals Court today agreed with a Worcester Superior Court judge that a man buying drugs was properly stopped and searched, which led to his conviction for possessing Oxycodone. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Santa Maria.
During a January afternoon in 2014, a Worcester police officer was conducting undercover surveillance near Grafton and Houghton Streets. The officer had investigated street-level drug operations for twenty years and knew the areas of the city that were likely to host drug deals. The area where he was conducting surveillance on the date in question had been the subject of complaints about drug dealing activity. The officer was parked in an unmarked cruiser in a gas station parking lot when he saw a man park his Chevrolet Cruze next to him. After going into the store, the man returned to his car and waited until a pickup truck arrived and parked directly in front of him. The driver of the Cruze got out of his car and approached the driver of the pickup truck, where the two men engaged in a hand-to-hand exchange through the truck’s driver’s side window. The driver of the Cruze walked back to his car while looking at an object in his hand. The cop believed he had witnessed a drug deal. The Cruze drove away while the officer and his colleagues continued to surveil the driver of the pickup truck, who had parked in a convenience store parking lot. A short time later, the defendant drove into the lot and parked. He got out of his car, walked to the pickup truck, and got into the passenger’s seat. Believing a drug deal was about to happen, multiple police officers surrounded the pickup truck. The driver was ordered out of the truck and was holding $297, heroin, and crack cocaine. The defendant was physically removed from the passenger seat and, after a brief struggle, was placed into custody. In his pocket was a pill bottle containing Oxycodone. A Worcester Superior Court jury found the defendant guilty of assault and battery on a police officer, resisting arrest, and possession of Oxycodone. The Appeals Court affirmed.
The primarily issue on appeal was whether the cops had properly arrested the defendant and searched him without a warrant. He had filed a motion to suppress, which was denied by a superior court judge. The Appeals Court agreed with the motion judge that the cops had probable cause to believe the driver of the pickup truck had engaged in a drug deal with the driver of the Cruze, as a police officer with experience in investigating drug cases observed an unusual transaction between two men who were engaged in furtive actions in an area known for illegal drug activity. Given the existence of probable cause, the cops had the constitutional right to order the pickup truck driver out of his vehicle to arrest him and to conduct a search of the interior of the truck. Because the defendant was sitting in the truck that was about to be searched, it was appropriate for the police to order him to exit. Instead of following the exit order, the defendant thrust his hands toward his waistband, which gave the police probable cause to search the defendant for evidence of a drug crime. Accordingly, the motion to suppress was properly denied and the defendant was properly convicted.