Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Search of New Bedford Shed that Yielded Crack Cocaine

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today turned away a defendant’s challenge that police officers had exceeded the scope of a warrant by searching a shed located in the back of his apartment building.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Sanchez

In August of 2012, the New Bedford Police Department was conducting an investigation into the defendant’s drug-dealing activities.  A confidential informant working with the police reported that the defendant was selling cocaine from his third-floor apartment and had seen cocaine in the apartment in the 72 hours prior to the police applying for a search warrant.  The police confirmed the defendant was living in the apartment by obtaining utility bills in his name.  As a result of their investigation, officers obtained a warrant to search the third floor apartment located at 101 Coffin Avenue (the building was a multifamily home containing three apartments).  In preparation of executing the warrant, the police set up surveillance and approached the defendant as he was arriving home.  The police took a set of keys from him and used one of the keys to open the door to the defendant’s apartment.  While some officers searched the apartment, another officer found a key taken from the defendant that opened a padlock on a shed that was in the backyard.  The apartment and the backyard (including the shed) were enclosed by a fence.  There was a motorcycle inside the shed that was operated by a key found on the defendant’s key chain.  The police found more than 100 grams of crack cocaine hidden in the ceiling of the shed and he was charged with cocaine trafficking.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the drugs, arguing the search warrant did not authorize the police to look inside the shed.  A superior court judge denied the motion and the defendant was convicted by a jury.  He appealed and the Appeals Court affirmed the judge’s denial of his motion to suppress and his conviction.

The issue regarding the search was whether the shed was within the “curtilage” of the defendant’s home.  When a warrant allows for the search of a residence, the police are entitled to search the residence itself and any structures that fall within its curtilage (which is the land attached to the residence).  The United States Supreme Court has said judges should consider four factors in determining whether a structure falls within a home’s curtilage: (1) how close is the structure to the home? (2) is the structure enclosed by something (such as a fence) that also encloses the home? (3) what is the nature of the use of the structure? and (4) what steps did the resident take to protect the structure from observation by passersby?  In this case, the Appeals Court ruled the shed fell within the curtilage of the defendant’s apartment and it was therefore appropriate for the police to have searched it.  The Court noted that the shed was in the backyard immediately adjacent to the apartment building, it was enclosed by a fence, and there was evidence suggesting the defendant had exclusive use of the shed (and had locked the shed to prevent others from gaining access).  Had the shed been accessible by all residents of the apartment building, it likely would not have qualified as curtilage and the search would have been deemed unlawful.

Drug trafficking carries mandatory minimum sentences in Massachusetts, and a conviction for cocaine trafficking over 100 grams results in at least 8 years in state prison.