The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the conviction of the operator of a Lynn “chop shop.” The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Ramos.
The defendant was convicted of receiving a stolen motor vehicle related to an incident dating back to April of 2008, when a Natick man realized that his Honda Civic was missing from his fiance’s driveway. He called the police and activated the Civic’s LoJack transmitter. A Lynn police officer was patrolling the city in his cruiser when he heard the LoJack signal. The Lynn officer followed the signal to a detached garage behind a house located at the intersection of Gardiner and Florence Streets. Dispatch informed the officer that the defendant lived at the address and was under investigation for running a chop shop. Further, the defendant had previously pleaded guilty to stealing cars and stripping parts from stolen motor vehicles.
When the officer arrived at the garage, he heard the sound of metal tools coming from inside of the garage. The officer knocked on the garage door and announced “Lynn Police.” He then heard tools being dropped and saw three people running away. Other officers had arrived at the scene and two men were immediately taken into custody. A third man was found hiding under a pile of trash bags on the porch and was taken into custody. The original officer then walked back to the garage and looked inside. He saw the stripped Civic, made note of the vehicle identification number, and confirmed that it was the stolen car. The officers then secured the property and obtained a search warrant. The defendant was found hiding in the house.
Following his conviction, the defendant appealed and argued that a superior court judge had erroneously denied his motion to suppress evidence. The defendant had argued in the trial court that the police violated his constitutional rights by entering into and searching the garage before obtaining a search warrant. The motion judge concluded that the police had acted properly and the Supreme Judicial Court agreed.
When the police search an area without a warrant (and without the consent of the owner), they must have probable cause to believe a crime is being committed and there must be exigent circumstances. The Court pointed out that the government has the burden of establishing that there were exigent circumstances justifying the search. Exigency is proven where the police reasonably believe that entry is required in order to prevent the potential loss or destruction of evidence.
In this case, the officers knew by the time they arrived that the garage was being used as a suspected chop shop, where stolen cars would be disassembled for resale. The responding officer heard sounds from inside of the garage that were consistent with metal tools being used to dismantle a car. The defendant, who lived at the property, was not one of the men who was arrested in the yard. Therefore, reasoned the Court, it was appropriate for the police to search the garage to ensure that evidence was not being destroyed. If the police had waited to obtain a warrant, the Civic could have been destroyed and unidentifiable. Accordingly, the search was constitutional and the defendant was properly found guilty at trial.
Motions to suppress evidence are often appropriate in these types of cases. If you are charged with receiving stolen property, it is important to immediately consult with an experienced defense attorney.