Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Massachusetts Supreme Court

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After Defendant’s first three trials ended in mistrials, a fourth trial was held, and Defendant was convicted of murder in the first degree on theories of felony-murder and extreme atrocity or cruelty. Defendant appealed, raising numerous claims of error. The Supreme Court affirmed the convictions, holding (1) the trial court did not commit prejudicial error in its evidentiary rulings; (2) any error committed by the prosecutor during closing argument was not prejudicial; (3) the trial judge did not err in denying Defendant’s motion to dismiss the indictments against him; and (4) the Commonwealth engaged in egregious misconduct by issuing a press release regarding the case, but the conduct was not of sufficient significance to result in the denial of Defendant’s right to a fair trial. The Court also reinstated Defendant’s two convictions of armed robbery - the underlying felonies in the felony-murder conviction - which the trial judge had dismissed as duplicative, holding that those convictions were not duplicative where Defendant was also convicted on another theory of murder in the first degree - murder with extreme atrocity or cruelty. View "Commonwealth v. Wood" on Justia Law

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Defendant was stopped by police officers while walking down the street. An officer asked for permission to search the backpack Defendant was carrying, whereupon Defendant removed the bag and handed it to the officer. The officer then removed a box designed to look like a cigarette package but which was “noticeably heavier.” At this time, Defendant changed his mind and told the officer he could not look in the bag. The officer proceeded to open the box and discovered cocaine. Defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized as a result of his stop and subsequent arrest. The trial court denied the motion, and the court of appeals affirmed. Defendant was subsequently convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Defendant appealed the denial of his motion to suppress. The Supreme Court vacated the conviction and ordered a new trial, holding (1) the investigatory stop of Defendant was supported by reasonable suspicion; but (2) there was no probable cause to make an arrest when the cigarette box was opened, and the opening of the cigarette box could not be justified as a search incident to arrest. View "Commonwealth v. Stewart" on Justia Law

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Law enforcement officers stopped the vehicle Defendant was driving and placed Defendant under arrest on outstanding arrest warrants. The officers proceeded to pat frisk Defendant’s outer clothing and opened a container found on Defendant. Before transporting Defendant to the station for booking, an officer entered Defendant’s vehicle to retrieve its keys and saw an unlabeled container in plain view. The officer seized the pills contained in the container. Thereafter, Defendant was charged with illegal possession of methadone. Defendant moved to suppress the evidence seized as a result of his arrest on the outstanding warrants. The district court denied the motion, and the Appeals Court affirmed. The Supreme Judicial Court reversed the denial of Defendant’s motion to suppress, vacated Defendant’s conviction, and remanded for a new trial, holding that, under the circumstances of this case, the police exceeded the lawful scope of a search incident to arrest, an inventory search, and a seizure under the plain view doctrine. View "Commonwealth v. White" on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was whether the smell of unburnt marijuana suffices to establish probable cause search an automobile. The question arose in the wake of the 2008 ballot initiative decriminalizing possession of one ounce or less of marijuana and the holding in Commonwealth v. Cruz that “the odor of burnt marijuana alone cannot reasonably provide suspicion of criminal activity.” In this case, police perceived a strong odor of unburnt marijuana emanating from Defendant’s vehicle and, after seizing a “fat bag” of marijuana from the glove compartment, searched Defendant’s vehicle. The trial judge denied Defendant’s motion to suppress as to the “fat bag” but ordered suppressed the bags of marijuana found in the ensuing search of the back seat of Defendant’s vehicle. The Supreme Judicial Court held (1) the trial judge correctly determined that the odor of unburnt marijuana did not justify the search of the back seat of Defendant’s vehicle under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement; but (2) because the judge did not specifically address whether the seizure of the “fat bag” would support probable cause to arrest Defendant, the case must be remanded. View "Commonwealth v. Overmyer" on Justia Law

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This case concerned the effect of the 2008 ballot initiative decriminalizing possession of one ounce or less of marijuana on police authority to conduct warrantless searches of vehicles resulting from the odor of unburnt marijuana. Defendant’s vehicle was searched based solely on the odor of unburnt marijuana emanating from the vehicle. Defendant was subsequently charged with various drug- and firearms-related offenses. A municipal court judge ultimately allowed Defendant’s motion to suppress the fruits of the search. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the order allowing the motion to suppress, holding (1) the search of Defendant’s vehicle was not justified as a search incident to arrest; (2) the search was not permissible on the basis that it was to “prevent the defendant from smoking marijuana while driving”; and (3) absent articulable facts supporting a belief that defendant possessed a criminal amount of marijuana under state law, the search was not justified by the need to search for contraband under federal law. View "Commonwealth v. Craan" on Justia Law

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Defendant, an attorney, was charged with multiple counts of, inter alia, forgery of a document and uttering a forged instrument. The charges stemmed from allegations that Defendant, through his use of computers, orchestrated a sophisticated scheme to divert to himself funds that were intended to be used to pay off large home mortgage loans. Prior to trial, the Commonwealth filed a motion to compel Defendant to enter his password into encryption software he placed on various digital media storage devices that were in the custody of the Commonwealth. Following a hearing, a judge denied the Commonwealth’s motion to compel decryption but reported a question of law to the Supreme Judicial Court. The Court reversed the denial of the Commonwealth’s motion, concluding that Defendant could be compelled to provide his key to seized encrypted digital evidence provided that the compelled decryption would not communicate facts of a testimonial nature to the Commonwealth beyond what Defendant had already admitted to investigators. Remanded. View "Commonwealth v. Gelfgatt" on Justia Law

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After a jury trial, Defendant was convicted of murder in the first degree on the theory of deliberate premeditation and of unlawful possession of a firearm. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed Defendant’s convictions, holding (1) the trial judge did not abuse her discretion and did not violate Defendant’s constitutional rights in questioning members of the jury venire concerning the effect of the absence of eyewitness testimony to the murder in the Commonwealth’s case; (2) the prosecutor’s redirect examination of an immunized witness did not invade the province of the jury to determine the witness’s credibility and did not allow the Commonwealth to vouch for the witness’s credibility; and (3) the prosecutor did not commit misconduct by making certain remarks closing argument. View "Commonwealth v. Andrade" on Justia Law

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At issue in this appeal was a telephone call recorded by the police between Defendant and a cooperating witness where the cooperating witness was instructed by law enforcement to elicit information regarding a “designated offense” but instead elicited information about an unrelated crime that was not a designated offense. The Commonwealth did not seek a warrant under the Massachusetts electronic surveillance statute, which requires the Commonwealth to obtain a warrant before it may conduct an “interception,” unless the communication is recorded “in the course of an investigation of a designated offense.” After the telephone call was recorded, Defendant was indicted for murder and several other offenses. A superior court judge suppressed the conversation, concluding that the recording was not made in the course of an investigation of a designated offense. The Supreme Judicial Court reversed, holding that where a law enforcement officer, acting in good faith, instructs a cooperating witness to attempt to elicit information regarding a designated offense, regardless of whether the cooperating witness actually follows the officer’s instructions, the recorded conversation is not an interception and therefore does not require a warrant under the statute. View "Commonwealth v. Mitchell" on Justia Law

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After a jury trial, Defendant was convicted of murder in the first degree on the theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed, holding (1) the trial court did not err in denying Defendant’s motion to suppress statements made to the police, as the statements were made voluntarily; (2) the trial court did not err in denying Defendant’s motions for required findings of not guilty, as the evidence presented at trial supported the conviction; (3) the admission of expert rebuttal testimony was proper and did not violate Defendant’s privilege against self-incrimination; and (4) the prosecutor did not engage in impermissible misconduct during closing arguments. View "Commonwealth v. Harris" on Justia Law

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After a jury trial, Defendant was convicted of unarmed robbery and assault and battery. On appeal, Defendant challenged the trial court’s admission of expert opinion that the DNA profile generated from a known saliva sample of Defendant matched a DNA profile obtained from a swab taken from eyeglasses that were left at the scene of the robbery. The Supreme Judicial Court vacated Defendant’s conviction, holding (1) an expert opinion regarding the results of DNA testing is not admissible unless the defendant has a meaningful opportunity to cross-examine the witness about the reliability of the underlying data produced by the DNA testing; and (2) in this case, the analysts who generated the DNA profiles did not testify at trial, and the expert witness who offered the opinion of a match had no affiliation with the laboratory that tested the crime scene sample, and therefore, Defendant was deprived of a meaningful opportunity for such cross-examination. Remanded for a new trial. View "Commonwealth v. Tassone " on Justia Law