This past Thursday there was another important development in the prosecution of Aaron Hernandez. The Bristol County District Attorney’s Office filed a response to Hernandez’s earlier motion asking the court to prevent evidence discovered at Hernandez’s home from coming into trial. According to a recent article, the Fall River Superior Court will hear arguments on the motion and the prosecutor’s response this coming Monday, June 16.
Filing a Motion to Suppress
The prosecutor’s submission Thursday was in opposition to what is referred to as a “Motion in Limine” or a “Motion to Suppress,” filed by Hernandez’s attorneys. In short, both motions are mechanisms by which a party asks the court to preclude certain evidence or statements/testimony from being presented at trial because the evidence was not obtained lawfully or the statements were coerced and/or are unreliable.
In the case of Hernandez, officers obtained a search warrant from a clerk magistrate and searched Hernandez’s home after Odin Lloyd’s body was discovered in a nearby industrial park. The officers conducting the search seized multiple tablet computers, cell phones, and Hernandez’s home video surveillance system. It is this evidence that Hernandez’s attorneys seek to suppress from admission at trial.
The “Probable Cause” Standard
What makes this evidence problematic is the way it came into the custody of the investigative officers. In order to seize the cell phones, tablets, and surveillance system, the officers applied for and obtained a search warrant authorizing the search. But obtaining a search warrant is not a simple procedure; the applicant is required to present to the magistrate reviewing the application enough evidence to establish “probable cause” that evidence of a crime exists at a certain location. Courts have defined probable cause as reasonably trustworthy information sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing that a evidence of a crime exists (or will exist) at a certain location. The officers were therefore burdened with presenting sufficient evidence leading a person to believe that evidence related to the murder of Odin Lloyd was likely at Hernandez’s home. It is a question of probability, not absolute certainty, so it is much easier to obtain a search warrant than it is to convict Hernandez of the crime.
Arguments to Expect
Hernandez’s defense attorneys will argue Monday that the officers did not have enough evidence to establish probable cause in support of their application for the search warrant. As a result, the warrant was invalid and any evidence discovered using the search warrant is inadmissible as an unconstitutional infringement on Hernandez’s right to privacy.
The prosecutors will rebut, however, by arguing that the home’s proximity to the industrial park, Hernandez’s relationship with Lloyd (Lloyd was dating the sister of Hernandez’s girlfriend), and his presence with Lloyd on the night of the murder is sufficient to suspect Hernandez in the death of Lloyd, and in turn to search Hernandez’s home for evidence such as a murder weapon.
Defenses can be raised against evidence seized by search warrants not only because of the insufficiency of the warrant application, but also because of the manner in which the warrant was executed at the search site, leading to the discovery of the evidence. To be valid, search warrants must be supported by probable cause and must state with particularity the place to be searched and items to be seized. In executing the warrant, the officers must make sure not to cross the limits of their authority as dictated by this particular language of the warrant itself. In other words, if the warrant specifically states that the officers may enter the residence of Aaron Hernandez in search of weapons, the officers may only search places within the home where it would be reasonable to suspect that Hernandez was storing or hiding a weapon. If officers acted outside the authority dictated in the warrant, any evidence they discovered accordingly could be suppressed.
Although that is the route used in the Hernandez investigation, a search warrant is not the only way for officers to gain entry onto a premises to search for evidence. Both Massachusetts and federal law allow for certain exceptions to the warrant requirement; officers need not obtain a warrant if they are conducting a search incident to an arrest, or if they have probable cause to believe evidence exists at a location but may not remain there long enough to wait for a warrant. There are several other exceptions under the case law that are not as relevant to the Hernandez matter.
Almost as important as the motion to dismiss filed by Hernandez’s attorneys last month, this motion to suppress will set the stage for the success or failure of the prosecution. If the defense’s motion to suppress is granted, the prosecutors will be severely limited in the amount and quality of evidence they present to a jury. And the less potent evidence they present, the weaker the link between Hernandez and the murder of Lloyd, and the greater the likelihood that a jury would not convict.