On January 14th, 2014, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion reaffirming the Court’s commitment to safeguarding the sanctity of the home against illicit government intrusion. The case, Commonwealth v. Conan Gentile, SJC-11372, clarified further the meaning of the terms “reasonable suspicion” and “reasonable belief” as they relate to the degree of knowledge that the police must have before a person’s home can be entered while the police execute an arrest warrant.
On June 24th, 2010, troopers of the Massachusetts State Police, along with three Leominster police officers, went to an apartment in Leominster to execute two arrest warrants for driving-related matters for the defendant. One of the troopers had encountered the defendant one week earlier on an unrelated issue and had noted that the defendant possessed a state identification card listing his home address as being at the apartment.
A trooper knocked on the rear door of the apartment, which was answered by a teenage girl who then called her mother to the doorway. The mother was asked if the defendant was in the apartment, and she replied twice that the defendant was not there. After speaking with the mother briefly, the trooper entered the apartment and pushed open a bedroom door, where he found the defendant. The trooper also noticed the end of an antique musket protruding from underneath the defendant’s bed. The trooper then searched under the bed and found two shotguns in gun cases. While the trooper searched under the bed, the defendant was screaming that the police were illegally searching his bedroom. The defendant was arrested and the firearms were seized.
After being taken to the State Police Barracks and interrogated by the troopers regarding recent burglaries from which firearms and a sword had been stolen, the defendant told the police that the stolen items were in his apartment. He told the troopers that he had received the items from someone else, who had committed the burglaries. The defendant then gave consent for the police to return to his apartment to search for the stolen items, which they did.
The defendant was charged with five counts of receiving stolen property, one count for each item seized from the defendant’s apartment.
By August of 2010, the defendant was facing five indictments in superior court for the stolen goods. He filed a motion to suppress all of the evidence taken from his home, as well as the statements he made during custodial interrogation at the State Police Barracks. The judge denied the defendant’s motion and allowed the evidence to be introduced at trial. The defendant was convicted by a jury of two counts of receiving stolen property. The defendant appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court transferred the appeal directly to itself, bypassing the intermediate Appeals Court.
SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT’S RULING
The defendant’s appeal was based on the trial judge’s denial of the motion to suppress evidence. The defendant argued that the police never had a “reasonable belief” that he was present in the apartment, as required to enter the home while serving an arrest warrant. Although the police may have had a reasonable belief that the defendant lived at the apartment, more is required to “reasonably believe” that the defendant was present in the apartment at the time the police entered for the purpose of arresting him.
The Commonwealth responded by arguing that the evidence heard by the original judge was enough to conclude that the police did, in fact, reach reasonable conclusions that the defendant was in the home. The Commonwealth argued that while the trooper was at the back door, he heard sounds of movement coming from elsewhere in the apartment. The trooper had stated that while he was speaking with the mother, she had replied twice that the defendant was not present, while turning her head to look at the bedroom door each time. The trooper also said that he had developed a sense of when people were lying to him about the presence of those being sought.
The Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) looked to their previous holdings in Commonwealth v. Grandison and Commonwealth v. Silva, which required that the police have “specific articulable facts” from which to conclude that the person sought is actually at the place the police enter, at that time, to arrest the person. The SJC stated that, while the belief need not rise to the level of probable cause, the belief cannot simply be a hunch or an ambiguous suspicion that is not based on valid reasons.
The SJC concluded that the simple fact that the police were aware that the defendant usually resided in the apartment was insufficient to believe he was physically present when they executed the warrant. The trooper’s conclusion that he could sense when someone was lying was likewise not a valid reason to believe the defendant was there. The Court said that if the trooper’s “sense” was enough to be an objectively “reasonable belief”, then the privacy of people in their homes could be violated by the police every time the police had a subjective feeling that crime was occurring in any house. The trooper never asked the mother if there was anyone else besides the defendant in the home, which could have provided an innocent explanation for the “sound of movement” that the trooper heard. Nor did the troopers conduct any form of surveillance on the apartment prior to knocking on the door, which could have either confirmed or denied the defendant’s presence. The SJC noted:
Because the trooper arrived at the residence after the commencement of the normal work day and had obtained no information that the defendant was there, any information supporting a reasonable belief that the defendant was inside the residence only could have been obtained after the trooper knocked on the door and before he entered the residence.
The SJC pointed to the sheer lack of any objectively valid “specific articulable facts” for the police to believe the defendant was present when they entered the home. The Court said that a “hunch is still a hunch, even if it turns out to be correct. And if the belief were reasonable, it would remain so even if the defendant was not in the residence.” The SJC ruled that the illegal entry by the troopers, in the absence of “reasonable belief”, so tainted the evidence obtained afterwards that all of the evidence should have been excluded from the trial. The defendant’s convictions were reversed and the SJC ordered that the charges be dismissed.