Articles Posted in Search and Seizure defenses in criminal cases

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has excluded evidence obtained from the cellphone of the defendant in Commonwealth v. Onyx White following the Boston Police’s failure to prove probable cause for the warrantless seizure of the phone.  The court affirmed that the warrantless seizure of a cell phone in the robbery-homicide investigation could not be justified by the detective’s personal judgment as to whether or not the cell phone contained important information relating to a case. The SJC ruled that the 68 day delay in the respective search warrant application was was unreasonable and that the Boston Police department should have prioritized the application for the respective search warrant or released the cell phone back to the defendant.

About the Case

After speaking with an administrative at the defendant’s high school based on his connection to a robbery-homicide, the administrative had informed the detective that she was in possession of the defendant’s personal cell phone as part of school policy. After gaining approval from his supervisor, the detective seized the cell phone in order to prevent the defendant from tampering with any potential evidence stored in the phone. A search warrant was issued 68 days later following the emergence of new information. Although the detective did not search the phone prior to the search warrant, the forensic search revealed evidence significant to the investigation.

Search and Seizure that occur in the home are subject to the highest scrutiny by the Court.  The case of Commonwealth v. Colon addresses whether a protective sweep complies with the Fourth Amendment and Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

What happened in the Colon Case?  

Officers arrived at the home of Robert Colon and knocked on the door, waiting for the defendant to open it. Upon opening the door, the officers identified a “strong odor” of fresh marijuana. This prompted the officers to handcuff the defendant and preform a protective sweep of his apartment.

A protective sweep a search done when there is a reasonable belief based on “specific and articulable facts that the area could harbor a dangerous individual”.

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Under state statute (G.L. c. 90 § 24), all drivers in Massachusetts have a legal obligation to stop and identify themselves whenever they know that their vehicle has collided with another vehicle, property, or a person. If the driver collides with another person, leaving them dead or unconscious, the driver must stay at the scene and provide information to another motorist or officer, or leave the scene to find a telephone to report the accident to authorities. Failure to do so could result in license suspension or criminal offenses.

Other states, such as Georgia, also require drivers to provide injured parties “reasonable assistance,” including providing, or arranging for, transportation of the injured parties for medical attention. Under Georgia statutes OCGA 40-6-270, a driver could be charged with a felony hit-and-run for failing to provide such assistance. Another statute, OCGA 40-6-393, also allows for a driver who fails to stop as required under 40-6-270 to be charged with first degree vehicular homicide if he injures a person and that person subsequently dies. Under the second statutory provision, a person could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison, in comparison to the five years under the hit-and-run provision.

The case of Henry v. State, heard by the Court of Appeals of Georgia, demonstrates the different legal issues that come into play in such hit-and-run cases. In Henry v. State, the defendant was operating a vehicle with a passenger down a public road in Georgia after midnight, when he struck two fourteen year-old boys walking in the grass along the road. The passenger testified that he felt an impact and saw one boy’s head hit the hood of the defendant’s pickup truck, and screamed to the defendant: “You just killed somebody. Stop Henry.” The passenger also testified that he was certain that this boy died on impact. Rather than stop to provide assistance as the statute requires, the defendant sped home and later abandoned the truck in a field with the intention of reporting it stolen.

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