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Worcester Criminal Defense lawyer comments on drug distribution involving probable cause to search a home when a confidential informant is used by the police

As a Worcester Criminal Defense Lawyers. a recent case from Worcester Country decided by the Massachusetts Appeals Court raised important issues of search and seizure in drug cases.  Drug cases often involve confidential informants and whether police can establish a nexus between the location of the search and drug distribution activity.

The Massachusetts Court of Appeals recently decided a case concerning a search and seizure of a home in Commonwealth v. Andre-Fields No. 19-P-846, 2020 WL 5648611 (Mass. App. Ct. Sept. 23, 2020).

Two defendants, Milano Andre-Fields, and his girlfriend Mindy Doherty, had their home raided and a large number of firearms and illegal drugs were confiscated.  Prior to trial, Andre-Fields and Doherty filed motions to suppress this evidence.  The Superior Court granted this motion on the basis that search warrants failed to establish the requisite nexus between the objects sought and the premises to be searched.

A confidential informant had contacted law enforcement and informed an officer,  Trooper Martinez, that a man was selling crystal methamphetamine and crack cocaine in the Worcester area.  Trooper Martinez arranged for the confidential informant to conduct three controlled buys to purchase cocaine from Andre-Fields.

This was not the first time Andre-Fields had encounters with the law.  He had recently been arrested in Rhode Island on October 6th, 2017, after police found him in a motel room with narcotics and marijuana.  He also had various drug charges in California during 2007-2008, along with an additional charge in Massachusetts in 2016.

After the three controlled buys by the confidential informant, police felt confident that there were drugs and other paraphernalia located in Andre-Field’s home.  A search warrant was issued on November 20th, 2017 and was executed the next day.  Police found two AR-15 rifles, a handgun, cash, scales, and a safe filled with methamphetamine.  When the police found a second safe, they obtained a second search warrant that authorized the seizure of the methamphetamine.

What does it mean to have a Nexus between the Location of the Search and alleged Drug Distribution or Trafficking?

The issue in this case concerns whether these warrants were supported by probable cause. Specifically, whether the information in the affidavit is adequate to establish a timely nexus between the defendant and the location searched to permit the determination that the particular items of criminal activity could be reasonably expected to be found there.  Although the district court found that there was not a timely nexus between the warrant and location and items found there, the Appellate Court disagreed and gave various reasons why.

First, the affidavit established that Andre-Fields was a drug dealer and running an ongoing operation.  The police corroborated the evidence from the confidential informant with the Rhode Island arrest and inferred from these facts that Andre-Fields was still involved with the illegal distribution of drugs.

The second factor that the court used in its decision is that the affidavit contained information from which one could infer that the apartment Andre-Fields was staying at was also the base of his drug operation.  The court cited the fact that he would leave his apartment to sell crack cocaine to the confidential informant, and then return home afterwards.  Although the court relied on this fact, it seems to be shaky reasoning, as there appears to be nothing suspicious about leaving ones home and returning afterwards.  Nonetheless, the motion to suppress the evidence was reversed at the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

Lack of clarity in Massachusetts search and seizure cases, what should be the standard?

So, was it reasonable to infer from this information that evidence of drug distribution would be found in the apartment?  Massachusetts has recognized that there is no bright line rule to determine whether there is a nexus between the supposed drug dealing and a defendant’s home, and these situations must be looked at on a case-by-case basis.  However, without a bright line rule, there is a lot that is up to the officer’s discretion.  In this case, Trooper Martinez and the confidential informant did not see drugs, or anything related to the sale of drugs inside the apartment itself.  The Supreme Judicial Court has previously held that a pattern of repeated activity giving rise to a reasonable inference that a dealer’s residence is being used as the base for his drug operation provides sufficient nexus to search his residence.    The SJC has also held that the nexus between the items to be seized and the place to be searched may be established by information in the affidavit of direct observation of those items at that place.  Com. v. McDermott, 448 Mass. 750 (2007). 

But in Andre-Field’s case, the only evidence law enforcement had was Andre-Fields leaving his home, selling at another location, and returning home.  However, the absence of direct observations of contraband is not always needed to establish a nexus.

Although Andre-Fields was indeed running a drug operation, it is concerning that the court relies on what seems more like suspicion rather a than tangible reason to search his home.  The probable cause standard used here is very vague, undefined, and may give too much discretion to law enforcement officers.

Judge Henry’s concurring opinion in this case gives some great insight on how low the bar is to establish a nexus in searching a residence in a drug dealing case.  She recommends that the standard for establishing a nexus between the target and premises and the drug selling should require at least three controlled buys, two of those buys originating from the target premises, and additional factors that indicate that the suspect has access to the target premises.

Because there is no bright line rule or standard for establishing a reasonable nexus, search and seizure could be abused in Massachusetts.  This lack of clarity should be resolved, and Judge Henry lays out some critical steps in establishing a more predictable standard.  Judge Henry’s concurring opinion is a good place for Massachusetts Criminal defense lawyer to start in attempting to expand the law to create greater rights under the Fourth Amendment and Article 14 of the Declaration of Rights.

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You can reach the Andre-Fields decision here.  

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