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Massachusetts Search Warrants and Curtilage

Often at issue in drug cases is the validity of searches and seizures of evidence. Even when the police obtain a search warrant, a defendant may challenge a search that is not authorized by the warrant. In Commonwealth v. Sanchez, the Massachusetts Appeals Court considered whether the search of an apartment authorized by a warrant extended to a shed in the back yard of the apartment.

The court considered the findings made by the motion judge in determining that the shed was within the curtilage of the defendant's apartment and therefore could properly be included within the search. The defendant, who was convicted of trafficking in 100 grams or more of crack cocaine, argued that the search warrant that authorized a search of his third-floor apartment and any persons present in it did not extend to the shed in the back yard. The apartment building contained three apartments. When the defendant approached as a passenger in the vehicle, the police stopped him and obtained a set of keys from him.

The police used one of the keys to open the apartment. Minutes later, an officer went out to search the fenced back yard. The officer saw the shed and unlocked the padlock on its door with one of the keys. He ultimately found and seized cocaine that had been hidden above one of the ceiling panels in the shed. The police also seized receipts from the apartment, showing the defendant rented the shed from the building's owners.

There are four factors used to determine if an area is within a home's curtilage: proximity to the home, whether the area is within a fence or enclosure around the home, the nature of its uses, and the steps the resident has taken to protect it from observations by passers-by.

The court found that these factors supported the determination by the motion judge that the shed was part of the apartment's curtilage. The shed was in the yard adjacent to the apartment building and contained within the fence around the yard. The defendant had rented the shed from the building owner and used a lock to limit access to it. He had exclusive use of it, as compared to the residents of the other apartments and the public at large.

The court found no error in the motion judge's determination that the shed was part of the apartment's curtilage and therefore that the warrant authorized a search of the shed.

Search and seizure challenges are particularly important in drug cases. When a search extends beyond the area authorized by the warrant, evidence found outside the authorized area may be excluded. In drug cases, the prosecution may be unable to prove its case if the drugs are excluded from evidence. If you are facing drug charges, an experienced Massachusetts drug crimes attorney can protect your rights. Call the Law Offices of Richard Mucci at (781) 729-3999.

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