Drug Trafficking Conviction Reversed Based Upon Invalid Warrantless Search of Vehicle

January 6, 2014
By Parker Scheer LLP on January 6, 2014 3:11 PM |

In many cases, the evidence obtained against a criminal defendant can and should be suppressed in court, based upon the police's violation of the defendant's constitutional rights in obtaining that evidence. Generally, if the police did not follow constitutional procedure, then a jury may not know about the evidence obtained as a result of the constitutional violation. A recent Massachusetts Appeals Court case illustrates this concept.

In Commonwealth v. Diaz, the defendant was convicted of trafficking cocaine in an amount of 28 grams or more, based upon two packages of cocaine that the police seized from the defendant's vehicle during a warrantless search of the vehicle. Several months prior to his arrest, the police had obtained information from a confidential informant that the defendant sold drugs, including at a building where a business named Family Oil was located, and that he packaged drugs there.

The police observed the defendant's vehicle parked behind the Family Oil building, located on private property, and entered the property. They saw the defendant exit the building and quickly place his jacket into his car and try to go back into the building. The police immediately seized and restrained the defendant. They then entered the building, searched the occupants, and found cocaine on two of them. Returning outside, the police searched the defendant's vehicle, without a warrant to do so, and found two bags of cocaine.

The Appeals Court noted several issues with the police's conduct in the course of these events. First, the confidential informant's reliability was never established and his information as to the defendant's criminal behavior was never corroborated, so the police could not base any reasonable suspicion of the defendant on the informant's information. Second, the court had at least some doubt that the police had validly entered onto the Family Oil private property, which was more likely for purposes of investigating the defendant's alleged drug activities there, rather than conducting a "well being check" of the premises, as suggested. Third, the court doubted that the information that the police had at the time they seized the defendant amounted to reasonable suspicion justifying the seizure or their entry into the building.

Although its opinion suggested disapproval of their actions, the Appeals Court did not decide whether the police's conduct prior to the warrantless search of the vehicle was valid. Instead, the Appeals Court found that, even if the police were entitled to take all of the information they had learned up until that point as justifying a suspicion of criminal activity by the defendant, the search of the defendant's vehicle still could not be justified, as the police did not have probable cause to search the vehicle. According to the court, the officers needed to "have entertained rationally more than a suspicion of criminal involvement, something definite and substantial," but failed to do so. "Even to the extent that the defendant's hurriedly placing his jacket in the car can be viewed as suspicious, that action, when viewed in conjunction with the other information, did not rise to the level of probable cause to believe that the defendant was secreting drugs inside the vehicle."

Because there were no valid grounds that justified the search of the defendant's vehicle, the Appeals Court found that the lower court should have suppressed the bags of cocaine found in the vehicle. Because the jury's conviction of the defendant was based upon those bags of cocaine being in evidence, the conviction was reversed.

Contact a Boston criminal defense attorney at Parker Scheer today to discuss your constitutional rights regarding police search and seizure without a warrant.