The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld a Springfield District Court judge’s decision to suppress a gun by concluding the police were engaged in an unlawful protective sweep when the gun was discovered. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Saywahn.
In February of 2016, the state of Connecticut issued an arrest warrant for the defendant, who was living in Springfield, Massachusetts. The defendant was accused of being involved in a shooting where the victim was shot in the face and the gun was never recovered. Seven or eight Springfield cops traveled to the defendant’s home to arrest the defendant. The defendant answered the door 20-30 seconds after the officers knocked and several officers entered the home while other officers went to the back and the sides of the home to secure the perimeter. The defendant identified himself as being the subject of the warrant and allowed himself to be handcuffed. The defendant was patfrisked and no weapons were found on his person. The cops asked him if anyone else was in the home and the defendant mumbled something before hesitating and finally saying, “no.” The officers decided to conduct a protective sweep of the home to ensure nobody else was present who might pose a danger. During the sweep, one of the officers opened a bedroom door and saw a gun protruding from beneath a mattress. The cops obtained a search warrant and later retrieved the gun, which the defendant did not have a license to possess. The defendant was charged with illegal possession of a firearm and ammunition.
The defendant filed a motion to suppress the gun, arguing that it had been discovered during an unconstitutional search by the police. A district court judge agreed and the Commonwealth appealed. The Appeals Court affirmed the suppression order.
A “protective sweep” is a quick, limited search of the premises by police officers. When officers are executing an arrest warrant, they may conduct a protective sweep when they have a reasonable belief that the area to be searched could harbor a dangerous individual. In determining whether such a reasonable belief exists, judges consider: (1) the crime with which the defendant is being charged and whether he has a violent criminal record; (2) the relationship between the point of arrest and the area to be searched; (3) whether the defendant was cooperative with the police or attempted to flee or resist arrest; and (4) whether other dangerous individuals are present or suspected to be present in the area to be searched. The protective sweep is also required to be performed in a quick manner. In this case, the defendant was obviously charged in connection with a violent crime which would justify the officers’ use of caution in arresting him. However, the cops did not know whether the defendant was the suspected shooter, and the Commonwealth did not introduce evidence related to his criminal record. Further, the defendant had already been handcuffed near the front door when the police decided to search the residence. The gun was found in a bedroom on the second floor. The Court pointed out that the cops could have safely taken the defendant out the front door without needing to ever enter the second floor. Further, the police did not have any evidence that there were other individuals present in the home. Under these circumstances, any belief by the officers that they could be in danger was too speculative and the protective sweep was therefore unconstitutional. The Commonwealth will now need to dismiss the case.
Gun cases often involve potential suppression issues. If you are charged with a firearms offense, you should immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.