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Appeals Court Reverses Denial of Defendant’s Motion to Suppress in Drug Case

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A divided panel of the Appeals Court reversed the denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress cocaine and other items seized from his vehicle in Commonwealth v. Barreto on the ground that the police did not have reasonable suspicion to issue the exit order that led to the discovery of the seized items.

The evidence presented at the hearing on the defendant’s motion to suppress was as follows. The police received a tip “from an undisclosed source” “that a green Volvo station wagon containing a ‘large’ amount of drugs would be near a certain intersection [at an unspecified time]…. No other information regarding the tip [and none about the tipster] was provided at the … hearing” because “the prosecutor … did not want to risk identifying the informant.” The prosecutor sought to demonstrate that the search of the defendant’s vehicle was justified solely on the basis of the observations of the police officers who responded to the tip. According to the police testimony at the suppression hearing, four officers “set up surveillance at the intersection mentioned by the informant.” At some point, the officers “saw a green Volvo station wagon turn at the intersection” and park nearby. Then “one of the officers observed the vehicle’s operator, subsequently identified as the defendant, lean down toward his right side ‘as if he [were] reaching toward the floor of the passenger side with both hands.’…. [T]he officer could not see the defendant’s hands…. Observing from a distance, the officers saw a man approach the parked vehicle from an adjacent building[,] interact with the defendant at the driver’s side window for approximately half a minute[,]” and then walk away. While the judge found that the police observed the unidentified man … lean toward [the vehicle] ‘in a manner consistent with that man placing his hands on the Volvo door or reaching inside the Volvo,’ [the judge] also found that the police did not observe the defendant and the unidentified man actually ‘reach their hands toward each other … or exchange any object.’…. [Nonetheless,] the judge found that their interaction was ‘consistent with the two men exchanging something.’ After the man walked away, the defendant drove … to an adjacent street, where the police pulled his vehicle over.” “The defendant cooperated with the police after the stop.” “Although [he] appeared nervous, he produced his driver’s license and vehicle registration when requested to do so…. [One of the officers] ordered the defendant out of the vehicle. As [he] was stepping out …, the officer saw a roll of cash in a clear plastic bag on the inside of the driver’s door. After … a patfrisk of [the defendant] revealed nothing, the police initiated a thorough search of the vehicle,” which revealed “a large amount of cocaine,” $11,050 in cash, and other items. The judge denied the defendant’s motion to suppress those items, “conclud[ing] that the police had reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle and to order the defendant out of it based on the brief interaction [purportedly consistent with a drug transaction] … between the defendant and the unidentified man who had approached his vehicle. Then, according to the judge, once the police observed the wad of bills in the driver’s door while the exit order was being executed, they gained probable cause that justified their subsequent search of the vehicle.” The defendant appealed.  

In its decision in favor of the defendant, the majority of the Appeals Court panel ruled that at the time the officers ordered the defendant out of his vehicle, they did not have reasonable suspicion that he had engaged in a drug transaction with the unidentified pedestrian. The majority stated, “As far as it goes, the judge’s finding that what the police saw was ‘consistent with’ a hand-to-hand exchange of illegal drugs is unassailable. However, the defendant’s observed actions would also be ‘consistent with’ a broad range of other [innocent] interactions…. Even if there were sufficient evidence to establish reasonable suspicion that an exchange had taken place, there was not enough to establish that the exchange was of illegal drugs.”

If you or a loved one is in a situation where the police obtained evidence against you as the result of a seizure and subsequent search, you will need an attorney to fight to suppress that evidence. Attorney Daniel Cappetta is an experienced and skilled attorney who has litigated numerous motions to suppress.  Call him today for a consultation to determine whether you have a strong motion that should be litigated.