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Massachusetts Appeals Court defines expectation of privacy under the 4th Amendment in Multi-family Home

Do You Have A Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in the Basement of a Multifamily Home That You Do Not Own?

The Fourth Amendment protects against places in which they have a subjective reasonable expectation of privacy. But when is this expectation unreasonable? The Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Bristol answered this question in Commonwealth v. DeJesus.

What happened in the DeJesus case?

 DeJesus was arrested in the summer of 2018 following a series of shootings in Fall River, Massachusetts. As a result of the shootings, the Fall River police department organized a task force to address crime in the city. Part of the task force’s job was to monitor social media of several people suspected in the shootings. Detective Matthew Mendes, a member of the task force, was monitoring a Snapchat account which depicted Christopher DeJesus and another person. In the videos DeJesus was holding a black semi-automatic pistol with an extended magazine and a tan or cream-colored grip that was easily identifiable. The Snapchats also portrayed the basement and outside part of a three-family house. Mendes identified the house as 14 Downing Street in Fall River.

Once Mendes and other officers arrived at 14 Downing Street, Mendes saw DeJesus, and others. When the police approached, everyone dispersed. DeJesus walked down the sidewalk toward his girlfriend’s house and others ran into the basement and backyard. Mendes heard people in the basement and noticed that the door was open. The police officers entered the basement and saw, in plain view, the same firearm that they noticed in the Snapchat videos. The police seized the scene, obtained a warrant, and took possession of the firearm. DeJesus was arrested outside.

At trial, DeJesus’ motion to suppress the evidence was denied because he did not have standing or a reasonable expectation of privacy in the basement that was searched by the police.

Did DeJesus Have Standing?

 On Appeal, the Massachusetts Appeals Court stated that under Jones v. United States a defendant that is charged with a crime of possession has automatic standing when challenging a search. However, a defendant with automatic standing must show that someone had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place searched.  The Court held that DeJesus was not in actual or constructive possession of the firearm that was seized at the time of the search and therefore he did not have automatic standing.

 

What About a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

 A person has a reasonable expectation of privacy from warrantless searches by police in certain places. This expectation of privacy is greatest at a place the person owns, occupies, or has access to. DeJesus did not own or occupy 14 Downing Street. It relevant that the area searched was a basement as one has a limited expectation of privacy in a common area that is often used by others. In addition, there is an even smaller expectation of privacy in a basement of a multi-unit apartment like 14 Downing Street. Lastly, the door to the basement did not have a lock on it.

 

For the police to conduct a constitutional warrantless search of a home they must have consent of the owner or occupant to enter the dwelling and search or the police must find an exception to the warrant requirement. Here, it is likely that the exigent circumstances warrant exception applies as the police reasonably believed that there was a serious crime and that they could find evidence at 14 Downing Street and/or that the people running in the basement were going to destroy this evidence.

 

The Court ruled the DeJesus did not have standing to challenge the search and that he had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the basement of the multiunit family home that he did not own or have regular access to. Additionally, the evidence was sufficient to establish that DeJesus had possession of the firearm and the large capacity feeding device.

 

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