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The Massachusetts SJC hears arguments in a case discussing searches and seizures of firearms based on anonymous tips.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments on December 5, 2022, in a case that discussed searches and seizures from a vehicle at one’s workplace based on anonymous tips. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence found as a result of the search of his vehicle on the basis it was unlawful, and the court denied it. The defendant had two arguments as to why the previous court erred in ruling the Commonwealth did not violate Guardado’s 4th and 14th amendment rights and protection under Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. First, the Commonwealth failed to demonstrate either the credibility of their informant or the credibility of the information, thus violating the Aguilar-Spinelli test, and also that the Commonwealth refused to instruct the jury about the exemption from liability that occurs when individuals have a firearm “in or on their place of business.”

Under the Aguilar-Spinelli test established by the US Supreme Court, police are required to demonstrate that an informant is credible or that their information is credible when they use that info to conduct a search warrant or warrantless arrest. Although this standard was abandoned by the Supreme Court in Illinois v. Gates and replaced by a “totality of the circumstances” approach, Massachusetts is one of the few states that has adopted this standard based on their own state constitution. In Guardado’s case, the officers searched the glovebox of his vehicle at his place of work based on an anonymous informant telling them a firearm was in a backpack within his vehicle. There were four reasons the search was improper:

  1. The evidence didn’t establish the informant’s veracity or if he had firsthand knowledge of the info, as required under Aguilar-Spinelli
  2. Even if the prongs of Aguilar were established, the tip didn’t support searching the glovebox (tip specified firearm was in a backpack which doesn’t reasonably fit in a glovebox)
  3. Even if probable cause for the glovebox was established, it was the result of an unlawful search/patfrisk of the defendant (pat frisked for his keys after finding no backpack in the vehicle)
  4. The Government failed to either: establish probable cause to search the backpack, get a warrant, establish it fell under a warrant exception, or prove that the backpack search occurred before the search of the glovebox.

The justices determined the Commonwealth didn’t satisfy the Aguilar-Spinelli test. The informant’s information could have been observed by any bystander, and the tip that the firearm was in a backpack proved to be false. As for the credibility of the informant, the lower court relied on prior tips he had made to the police, relying on resulting arrests, but for the prong to be satisfied, the arrests had to be firearm related, and they weren’t. Because the government failed to meet both prongs of Aguilar-Spinelli, the court determined that the lower court erred in denying the motion to suppress the evidence recovered from Guardado’s vehicle.

Lastly, defense counsel asked that the jury be instructed of the exemption for liability if Guardado was at his place of business when he possessed the firearm, and the court denied the request. The jury even raised a question regarding whether Guardado had to be outside his business to be criminally liable, and the court said, “as a matter of law, I ruled that exemption does not apply in this case.” The appeals court determined this was improper because this was a question of fact for the jury to decide and failing to adequately inform the jury of this created a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice.

To learn more, reach out to Attorney Delsignore by calling or texting 781-686-5924.

 

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