Massachusetts Appeals Court Tosses Drug Evidence Where Cops Failed to Conduct a Lawful Protective Sweep During Search of Lynn Apartment

The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday reversed a district court judge’s denial of a defendant’s motion to suppress drugs, ruling that the district court judge incorrectly justified the search as a “protective sweep.”  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Colon.

In February of 2013, Massachusetts state troopers and Lynn police officers were attempting to arrest the defendant pursuant to an arrest warrant.  The police traveled to an apartment on Essex Street in Lynn to look for the defendant.  When they arrived, they knocked on the door and announced their presence.  Nobody initially answered.  The police continued to knock and then heard people moving around and water running inside the apartment.  A woman called out that she needed to get dressed before opening the door.  Following a lengthy delay, the defendant opened the door and identified himself.  The officers immediately smelled fresh marijuana.  The defendant appeared nervous and tried to walk out of the apartment.  Instead, the police ordered the defendant to remain in the apartment and handcuffed him.  After some conversation with the defendant, the police decided to search the apartment.  During the search, the police found three large bags of marijuana along with drug paraphernalia.  Following his arrest and arraignment, the defendant moved to suppress the marijuana and other evidence, arguing that the police did not have the authority to conduct a protective sweep in the circumstances of this case.

When somebody is being arrested in Massachusetts, the police are entitled to conduct a search, called a “protective sweep,” incident to that arrest.  The purpose of the protective sweep is to ensure that the officers are safe, and the Commonwealth must establish that the officers had a reasonable belief based on specific facts that the area to be searched could have harbored a dangerous person.  The district court judge who heard the motion to suppress concluded that the protective search was reasonable and constitutional and accordingly denied the motion.  The Appeals Court disagreed and reversed.

The Court considered the specific actions of the defendant as he was interacting with the police to determine that a protective search was unnecessary.  The testimony at the motion to suppress hearing established that the defendant opened the door, said “let’s go,” and attempted to leave the apartment with the cops.  The Court pointed out that the defendant had submitted to custody, was completely compliant, and the police were able to achieve their objective (to arrest the defendant) quickly and without conflict.  Because a protective sweep is intended to eliminate a possible threat, and in this case there was no evidence that anyone dangerous was hiding in the apartment, the police should not have searched the apartment without a warrant.  Therefore, the marijuana and the paraphernalia will not be admissible at trial and the case will likely be dismissed.

These facts present a good example of how cases can be won when the evidence appears to be overwhelming.  Regardless of the quantity of the evidence, it is meaningless if the police broke the law to obtain it.  If you are charged with a drug crime, you need to hire a criminal defense attorney who has expertise in aggressively litigating pretrial motions to suppress.