Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Affirms Murder Conviction of 17-Year-Old Killer

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the second-degree murder conviction of a man who shot to death a drug dealer when he was 17 years old.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Lugo

The victim was a marijuana dealer and in November of 2011, the defendant and three others (including the victim’s ex-girlfriend) decided to rob him.  The ex-girlfriend called the victim and arranged to meet him at a restaurant.  The defendant drove to the restaurant in his mother’s SUV, with the victim’s ex-girlfriend and the other two codefendants riding as passengers.  The defendant informed the others that he was carrying a revolver.  When they arrived at the restaurant, the victim got into the defendant’s SUV and the entire group drove to the victim’s house.  One of the codefendants accompanied the victim into his house to weigh the marijuana and they returned to the SUV for the victim to be paid.  The victim was standing next to the vehicle and leaned in through the front passenger’s side window to collect his money.  When the victim expressed concern that he wasn’t being paid in full, the defendant began backing up with the victim still halfway in the SUV.  The victim tried to grab the cash from the front seat passenger while simultaneously attempting to free himself from the vehicle.  Following a brief scuffle between the victim and the front seat passenger, the defendant shot the victim in the chest, killing him.  The victim was not armed with a weapon but was holding an open bottle or can of beer.  A jury convicted the defendant of second-degree murder, armed robbery, conspiracy to violate the drug laws, and two firearm offenses.  He appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.

The most interesting appellate issue dealt with the search of the real-time location data of the phone belonging to the victim’s ex-girlfriend.  Following the murder, the police learned the last person seen with the victim was his ex-girlfriend.  A detective tracked down the ex-girlfriend’s address and went to her home in Stoughton.  She wasn’t there but her sister called her cell phone and let the detective talk to her.  Through a coded conversation, the detective learned the ex-girlfriend was unable to talk freely and could not escape from her location.  The detective concluded she was in danger and the police called the ex-girlfriend’s cell phone service provider to locate the GPS coordinates of her phone.  The GPS search revealed the ex-girlfriend was in Brockton, and her mother told the police she might be at the defendant’s home.  The police were able to obtain corroborating information connecting the defendant to his address in Brockton, and officers arrived at his address shortly thereafter.  During a subsequent search of the home, the police found the murder weapon.  The defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing the police had violated his constitutional rights by obtaining the location information from the victim’s ex-girlfriend’s phone without a search warrant (which led to the search of his home and the discovery of the gun).  The SJC disagreed for two reasons.  First, the defendant lacked standing to challenge the search of a phone that did not belong to him.  Standing is a legal principle that states in order for a defendant to challenge the constitutionality of a search, he must have an expectation of privacy in the object that is being searched.  In this case, the defendant did not have a privacy interest in somebody else’s phone.  However, even if the Court reached the legal issue, the defendant would have lost because the search was justified by the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement.  If the police reasonably believe someone is in need of emergency aid, they are permitted to conduct a search without first obtaining a warrant.  In this case, the officers reasonably believed the victim’s ex-girlfriend was being held against her will and it was therefore necessary to locate her by way of her cell phone GPS coordinates.

The defendant was sentenced to life in prison but will be eligible for parole after 15 years.