Criminal Procedure: Houseguest’s Right To Privacy Upheld by SJC

Search and Seizure: Houseguest’s Right to Privacy Commonwealth v. Magri, 462 Mass. 360 (2012)

Summary: In Magri, the SJC held that individuals maintain a reasonable expectation of privacy in both backpacks and shopping bags stored in their host’s bedroom where they have been overnight guests. The host granted oral permission for Police to search her apartment, during which Police found both bags in plain view. The bags contained evidence linking the Defendant to several of his charged offenses, and Police recognized the white shopping bag from their surveillance of the Defendant. With its ruling the Court granted the Defendant a new trial on those charges.

Discussion: The lower court denied the motion on grounds that the host’s oral and written consent to search the apartment also authorized the police to search the bags. Yet the Court disagreed, finding that the bags were akin to storing luggage in a host’s dwelling, and overnight guests who keep luggage in a host’s dwelling maintain a right to privacy. C.f, United States v. Davis, 332 F.3d 1163, 1167-1168 (9th Cir. 2003). The Commonwealth argued the Defendant lost his right to privacy when the host terminated the host-guest relationship by telling the police that the Defendant was no longer a welcome guest. However, because the Defendant may not have known of this status change, the host’s declaration to the police had no impact on the Defendant’s privacy expectations. The Commonwealth further argued that the search was permissible because it was conducted under the authority of validly given consent. Although the host’s consent permitted the bags’ seizure, the bags were not searchable unless police obtained a warrant.

Implications: This case provides two important reminders. First, motions open the door for later appeals. Although the Defendant did not object to the evidence at trial, his pre-trial motion allowed for the later appeal. Second, the Defendant must be aware of the broken host-guest relationship to lose the right to privacy for closed containers within the host’s dwelling. The status of the host-guest relationship depends largely on what the Defendant believes that relationship to be.

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