Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Concludes Chelsea Strip Search Was Unconstitutional

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today concluded the strip search of a suspected drug dealer by Chelsea police officers was not supported by probable cause, and the drugs recovered during the search are therefore inadmissible at trial.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Agogo

On a March evening in 2016, two Chelsea cops were conducting surveillance near Bellingham Square, which was a high crime area known for illegal drug activity.  The officers watched the defendant stand on a sidewalk next to an apartment building and talk to passersby.  The defendant also repeatedly entered the building for short periods of time.  The officers believed the defendant was a drug dealer who kept his stash inside the apartment building.  At one point, the defendant met with a pedestrian for several minutes (out of the officers’ sight), and the officers believed the men had engaged in a drug deal.  Shortly thereafter, a man named James Foster approached the defendant and appeared to be counting money.  Foster and the defendant walked around a corner onto a side street and the officers followed them.  It appeared the defendant handed an item to Foster and the cops confronted the men.  Foster was found to have a small bag of cocaine and the defendant had $20 (which was the approximate value of the cocaine recovered from Foster).  The defendant was upset when confronted by the cops, and took a “bladed” stance toward them.  He was ultimately patfrisked, arrested, and transported to the police station.  Once at the station, the cops decided to strip search the defendant.  When the defendant was completely naked, the officers saw and seized a bandana from his groin area that held seven small bags of cocaine.  He was charged with distribution of cocaine, possession with intent to distribute cocaine, and conspiracy.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the drugs found during the strip search.  A Chelsea District Court judge agreed with the defendant that the strip search was unconstitutional and suppressed the drugs.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Appeals Court reversed in a split decision.  On further review, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the district court judge’s ruling and reversed the Appeals Court.

The SJC has recognized several times that strip searches are inherently humiliating, demeaning, and terrifying.  In order for a cop to administer a strip search, he must have probable cause to believe a weapon, contraband, or other evidence will be discovered (and could not have been discovered by a normal search).  The Court ruled the police in this case had, at best, only a reasonable suspicion (and not probable cause) that the defendant possessed contraband in his crotch.  The Court pointed out that probable cause can be established in a number of ways, such as when the police feel an unusual object during a patfrisk or a suspect is obviously trying to block officers from his groin.  In this case, there was no indication the defendant was hiding anything in his groin area.  The cops had a hunch – which turned out to be correct – that the defendant had drugs hidden beneath his pants.  But a hunch is not the equivalent of probable cause, and the defendant’s motion to suppress was therefore properly allowed by the district court judge.