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Commonwealth v. Agogo

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

June 29, 2018


          Heard: January 10, 2018.

         Complaint received and sworn to in the Chelsea Division of the District Court Department on March 28, 2016. A pretrial motion to suppress evidence was heard by D. Dunbar Livingston, J.

         An application for leave to prosecute an interlocutory appeal was allowed by Margot Botsford, J., in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county of Suffolk, and the appeal was reported by her to the Appeals Court.

          Amanda Teo, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

          Michael A. Frates for the defendant.

          Present: Trainor, Meade, Hanlon, Sullivan, & Henry, JJ. [1]

          MEADE, J.

         The defendant was charged by complaint in Chelsea District Court with distribution of a Class B controlled substance, conspiracy to violate the drug laws, and possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute. He filed a motion to suppress evidence and statements, and challenged the validity of a strip search. After an evidentiary hearing, the judge issued written findings which allowed, in part, the defendant's motion as it related to evidence seized pursuant to the strip search, concluding that it was not supported by probable cause and conducted in violation of a written strip search policy. The Commonwealth filed a timely notice of appeal. A single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court allowed the Commonwealth's application for leave to pursue an interlocutory appeal and reported the matter to this court. See G. L. c. 278, § 28E; Mass.R.Crim.P. 15(a)(2), as appearing in 422 Mass. 1501 (1996). We conclude that the strip search was proper and therefore reverse the order which allowed, in part, the motion to suppress.

         1. Background.

         The entirety of the Commonwealth's evidence at the suppression hearing was provided by Chelsea police Detective Jose Torres, Jr. Based on the evidence the judge found credible, he made the following findings of fact:

         a. The surveillance.

         At the relevant time, Detective Torres had been a member of the Chelsea police department for approximately eight and one-half years. For approximately the last one and one-half years, Torres had worked as a detective assigned to the drug unit.[2]

         Torres was familiar with the Bellingham Square area of Chelsea. The Bellingham Square area is considered to be a high crime area. On March 25, 2016, Torres was working with Lieutenant Betz of the Chelsea police department conducting surveillance from an unmarked cruiser while in plain clothes. At approximately 9:00 P.M., Torres and Betz were parked on Fourth Street between the intersection of Broadway and Division Street, an area adjacent to Bellingham Square. This location, which is both residential and commercial, was chosen for surveillance after the police received citizen complaints of street level drug dealing and drug use in this area.

         Torres and Betz focused their attention on a multifamily residential building located at 9-11 Fourth Street (the building). The building was approximately eighty feet from the police surveillance position and on the same side of the street. From their vantage point, the officers had a largely unobstructed, well-lit view of the front area of the building.

         b. The defendant arrives.

         After approximately twenty minutes of surveillance, Torres observed a person, later identified as the defendant, arrive at the front of the building. The defendant was accompanied by a woman. The defendant was not previously known to Torres and Betz. The defendant and the woman stood on the sidewalk in front of the building. On several occasions, Torres observed the defendant enter the building, remain inside the building and out of view for approximately thirty seconds, and then return to the sidewalk in front of the building. On at least one of these occasions, the woman accompanied the defendant into the building. Based upon his experience and training, Torres knew that it is common practice for persons engaged in street level drug distribution to not have drugs on his person. Instead, some drug purveyors keep drugs nearby in a "stash" location and periodically retrieve small quantities of drugs from it to sell, and then return to the stash location to retrieve another small quantity of drugs for the next sale.

         Torres watched people walk in front of the building, passing by the defendant as he stood in front of the building. He saw the defendant attempt to initiate conversations with some of the pedestrians as they passed him. On one occasion, Torres saw the defendant walk with one of the pedestrians around the corner of Fourth Street onto Division Street, where they were out of view for five to ten minutes, and then return to the front of the building. Based upon his training and experience, Torres knew that it was common practice for drug dealers to consummate a drug transaction on a side street out of view in order to avoid detection. Fourth Street is a main street in Chelsea, while Division Street is a side street.

         c. The hand-to-hand sale.

         After conducting surveillance for approximately twenty to twenty-five minutes, Torres saw a man, later identified as James Foster, walk by the front of the building, stop, and appear to speak with the defendant.[3] Foster was unknown to the police. From his vantage point, Torres could see Foster "manipulating something in his hands" as he spoke with the defendant. Torres believed that Foster's hand movements were consistent with someone counting currency. The defendant and Foster then walked together on Fourth Street toward the surveillance position and turned right onto Division Street out of police view. Torres believed that a drug transaction was about to take place.

         The police officers drove their cruiser on Fourth Street toward the building, turned left onto Division Street, and activated their emergency lights. As they turned onto Division Street, Torres saw the defendant and Foster standing face-to-face. It appeared that the defendant was handing an item to Foster, but Torres could not see the item. Foster was wearing a hooded sweatshirt with a pouch-like pocket in front that was accessible from the right or left side. After the interaction between the defendant and Foster, Torres watched Foster put his hands into the sweatshirt pocket. Based upon his experience and training, Torres believed that he had witnessed a hand-to-hand drug transaction. Having seen this, the officers drove up to where the defendant and Foster were standing and got out of the cruiser. Torres approached Foster. Betz approached the defendant. Both officers had their police badges displayed and they identified themselves as police officers.

         d. The defendant's arrest.

         Torres told Foster that he was being stopped because the officers believed Foster was involved in a drug transaction. Torres told Foster to take his hands out of his sweatshirt pocket. Foster hesitated to comply with the order. Foster told Torres that he had a knife in his sweatshirt pocket; Torres was concerned for his safety. Torres removed the knife from the sweatshirt pocket. The knife was a folding knife. Upon removing the knife, Torres observed in the pocket a clear plastic knotted bag containing a white powdered substance. Based upon his experience and training, Torres believed that the substance was cocaine packaged for street-level distribution. Foster was placed under arrest.

         During the time that Torres spoke with Foster, Betz and the defendant stood about ten feet away. After arresting Foster, Torres approached Betz and the defendant. The defendant was not being compliant with Betz's orders. The defendant appeared to be upset and had taken a "bladed" stance toward Betz, i.e., a fighting stance. The defendant was "pulling away" from the police, apparently attempting to prevent Betz from conducting a search of his person. The defendant was "animated" in his speech and gestures; the officers were concerned for their safety. The defendant was pat frisked, which revealed nothing of significance. During a search of the defendant, the officers seized a twenty dollar bill. The defendant was arrested.

         e. Booking and strip search.

         The defendant was transported to the station house and brought to the booking area. The officers commenced a routine booking procedure with the defendant. At some point, the booking procedure was suspended. The officers believed that the defendant, who had conducted a drug transaction, may have drugs concealed on his person because they had not found any drugs during the search incident to his arrest at the scene. Based upon his experience and training, Torres knew that persons engaged in street-level drug transactions commonly hid drugs in their crotch. The officers decided that a more thorough search of the defendant was necessary, and Betz decided to conduct a strip search of the defendant. The Chelsea police department has a written "Strip and Body Cavity Search Policy." Pursuant to that policy, Betz advised the defendant that he was going to be subjected to a strip search. The defendant responded in an "animated" manner, telling the police that they were "not going to do that."

         Torres and Betz escorted the defendant to a cell near the booking area for the purpose of conducting a strip search. The cell was a private area. Only Torres, Betz, and the defendant were present during the search. Betz explained the strip search process to the defendant. The defendant was directed to remove his shirt, pants, underwear, shoes, and socks. He complied. Torres observed a red bandana in the defendant's crotch area, which was seized. Wrapped inside the bandana were seven small bags which contained a white powdered substance believed to be cocaine. The defendant's clothes were returned to him, and the booking procedure was completed.

         Based on this evidence, in a thoughtful memorandum of law, the motion judge determined that the stop, patfrisk, and seizure of money from the defendant, along with his arrest, were lawful. However, the motion judge concluded that the strip search was not supported by probable cause and was not conducted in accordance with the Chelsea police department's written strip search policy. Specifically, the motion judge concluded that "[t]he mere fact that the police did not find drug contraband on the defendant in their initial search incident to arrest cannot serve, absent other supporting facts not present here, to justify a strip search." However, because there are other facts here that support a finding of probable cause, this was error.

         2. Discussion.

         a. Pr ...

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