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Massachusetts Supreme Court Affirms Lower Court Order to Suppress Drug Evidence

In an interlocutory appeal filed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts affirmed in May 2012 the order of the Superior Court of Suffolk County suppressing evidence obtained in an unreasonably conducted strip search during the course of a legal arrest. Contested was not only the manner in which the search was conducted, but also the location.

In November 2009, Lowell Police Detective Daniel Desmarais was staking out the residence of suspected heroin trafficker Carlos Morales. Desmarais followed Morales to and from a buy from his supplier. A second police vehicle, this one marked, pulled into Morales’ parking area to assist with the arrest and Morales fled.

A chase ensued. After Morales was stopped, officers observed him moving around in his seat, like he might have been hiding something. Officers got Morales out of his car and Detective Desmarais conducted a pat search of the suspect, feeling a lump in the back of his shorts. Desmarais walked Morales to a more secluded spot, and then pulled back the waistband of Morales’ shorts, revealing a clear plastic bag containing a tan powder wedged in between Morales’ buttocks.

The Defendant attempted to run, striking at the detective with his elbow, was wrestled to the sidewalk face down and handcuffed behind his back. The detective pulled Morales’ shorts down, exposing his buttocks to public view and retrieved the baggie.

Morales was charged with possession of heroin with intent to distribute and other charges. At trial Morales moved to suppress the evidence gleaned from the arrest, claiming the search was unreasonably conducted with respect to his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Commonwealth held that there was no strip search, as the Defendant kept his clothes on.

The Superior Court granted Morales’ motion suppressing the evidence. The Supreme Judicial Court, hearing the Commonwealth’s appeal, discussed the parameters containing the situationally dependent term “strip search,” stressing the necessity of preservation of a balance between the needs of the search and the invasion of personal rights that the search entails. The court stressed also that strip searches need to be conducted out of the public eye.

The court in the instant case concluded that the manner in which the search was executed, with the Defendant’s buttocks publicly exposed, and the location, in public, overstepped the bounds of propriety and thus relegated the search unreasonable with respect to the Defendant’s rights. The court wondered also how Detective Desmarais as able to inspect the Defendant’s buttocks for drugs without public exposure, but was unable to retrieve the drugs without resulting exposure. See: Commonwealth v. Morales, 462 Mass. 334, 968 N.E.2d 403 (Mass. 2012).

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Related legal case

Commonwealth v. Morales