Search Warrant Standards In Massachusetts Drug Arrests Still In Flux.

Two recent Massachusetts Appeals Court rulings have caused yet more confusion over probable cause standards that police must meet to be granted valid search warrants of a person’s home for illegal drugs. One recent case seemed to lower the bar somewhat for police seeking warrants to search a person’s home for illegal drugs, while another case seemed to suggest police must meet a higher standard before being granted a warrant. The rulings come in the wake of two very important decisions issued by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 2009 regarding Massachusetts drug prosecutions, as those SJC decisions appeared to set the current probable cause standard for search warrants.

Those 2009 SJC decisions, Commonwealth v. Pina and Commonwealth v. Medina, seemed to establish the current probable cause test regarding warrants to search a person’s home for illegal drugs. That test, or standard, basically outlines how much evidence police must present in an application for a search warrant, before a judge can issue a valid warrant to search a person’s home for illegal drugs. Commonwealth v. Pina was the first of those two cases, Medina the second. In deciding Medina, the SJC cited its holding in Pina, which enunciated the principle that evidence establishing that a person may be guilty of illicit drug activity does not necessarily establish probable cause to search that person’s home for illegal drugs.  Clarifying this, the SJC stated that “the fact that a defendant drives from his home to the location of a drug transaction, and returns to his home on the transaction’s conclusion, with no other facts connecting the residence to drug sales, does not provide probable cause to search the residence.” Commonwealth v. Pina, supra at 441, 902 N.E.2d 917.

Hence, Pina and Medina seemed to establish that the current test for this type of search warrant required a nexus between the observed activities of the defendant, and probable cause that illegal drugs were being either stored in, or sold from, the defendant’s residence. Those decisions made it harder for police to receive valid warrants to search a person’s home, and harder for prosecutors to use that evidence against a drug defendant.

Now, those important evidentiary standards are not so clear, as two more recent Appeals Court decisions seem to create only more confusion about what the current standard actually is for these types of warrants. One of these two cases, Commonwealth v. Escalera, 79 Mass. App. Ct. 262, held that police could secure a valid warrant to search a defendant’s home based on less stringent evidence than the SJC discussed in either Pina or Medina. In Escalera, evidence was seized from the home of a suspected Massachusetts drug dealer, pursuant to a search warrant obtained by police. The defendant argued that the seized evidence should have been ruled inadmissible, because police failed to demonstrate a “probable cause nexus” between his observed activities, and illegal drugs being stored in or sold from his home. The court ruled against him, holding that “The defendant was seen leaving and returning to his residence multiple times to what were either known drug sales or to encounters that could readily be inferred to be drug transactions. A pattern of activity such as this, in our view, provides sufficient nexus to a dealer’s residence to satisfy probable cause to search it.”

The ruling was 2-1, and the dissenting opinion argued that “a hunch is not enough under the particularized probable cause requirements of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and art. 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.” Applying the SJC’s reasoning in Pina and Medina to the Escalera case, Judge Janis Berry wrote that police surveillance of Escalera’s single round-trip from his home in his car, where a drug sale took place away from his home, was insufficient to establish probable cause that illegal drugs were being stored in or sold out of his home. The majority ruling noted the obvious discord in this area of law, stating that case law on the issue of nexus and probable cause “no longer appears to provide useful precedent” and “would benefit from reexamination.”

Just one day after issuing Commonwealth v. Escalera, however, the Appeals Court then ruled the opposite way on an almost identical case, Commonwealth v. Dillon. In that case, Lowell police obtained four search warrants for a suspected oxycodone dealer’s two vehicles and his two residences after confidential informants provided information about that dealer’s activities. In their warrant application, police claimed that the defendant resided at two different locations. They alleged the defendant took drug orders from one residence, later delivering drugs by car. At the defendant’s second residence, sales records, $23,000 in cash and a firearm were seized by police. Prior to trial, the defendant sought to suppress evidence that police secured at the second residence on the grounds that the search warrant was defective. A Superior Court judge hearing the motion denied it. The Appeals Court overturned that ruling, holding that “the affidavit lacked sufficient particularized facts to establish a nexus between the defendant’s drug-selling activity and the [second] residence,” noting the warrant application contained only a general statement made by a single informant.

Hence, it’s obvious that in the area of evidence seized from homes of defendants charged with Massachusetts drug crimes, there is still too much grey area. Hopefully, the SJC will issue clarifying decisions in this key legal area. In the meantime, if you need to learn more about the law governing Massachusetts drug offenses, please contact my office for a free consultation. As a highly experienced Massachusetts drug offense attorney, my firm knows how to defend these cases.