Mass. Crim. Dig.: Commonwealth v. Sheridan

Commonwealth v. Sheridan, 25 N.E.3d 875 (2015)

I. Facts

Early one morning, the defendant, Matthew J. Sheridan, was pulled over by Officer Sean Glennon for an unilluminated headlight. While Glennon was conducting the stop, Sheridan appeared nervous, his hands shaking as he “fumbled” around for his license and registration. A second officer, Scott Walker, was patrolling the area, stopped at the scene, and approached the passenger window. Walker looked in the car’s passenger window and saw a small plastic sandwich bag sticking out from under a t-shirt on the floor; the bag appeared to contain about one-ounce of marijuana.

Walker indicated the presence of marijuana to Glennon, who then ordered Sheridan out of the car; a pat frisk revealed a cell phone and $285.00 cash. Glennon handcuffed Sheridan and searched the car, recovering two additional bags of marijuana. Sheridan was transported to the police station where, during booking for possession with the intent to distribute marijuana, the officers seized the cell phone and cash. Glennon proceeded to read the text messages in the cell phone, some of which appeared to be orders to purchase marijuana.

II. Procedural History

Sheridan was charged with violating G.L. c. 94C, § 32, possession with the intent to distribute marijuana, and a civil motor vehicle infraction for the broken headlight. He filed a motion to suppress the marijuana and cell phone, including the text messages, because the officers lacked probable cause to search the vehicle. After an evidentiary hearing, the motion was denied because the judge found the officers were entitled to enter the vehicle and seize the marijuana. Further, the search of the cell phone was a search incident to arrest and the information would be allowed under the inevitable discovery doctrine. A single justice granted Sheridan’s application for an interlocutory appeal and the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) granted his application for direct appellate review.

III. Question Presented

Whether, in light of the decriminalization of one-ounce or less of marijuana, the officers had probable cause to enter and search the vehicle to seize the marijuana?

IV. Reasoning and Analysis

On review of a motion to suppress, the SJC “accept[s] the judge’s subsidiary findings of fact absent clear error but conduct[s] an independent review of [the judge’s] ultimate findings and conclusions of law.” The automobile exception to the warrant requirement requires the police officer to have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime, and the inherent mobility of the vehicle on a public way renders getting a warrant impracticable.

In the case of marijuana, this exception is further narrowed by requiring the officer to have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contained a criminal amount of marijuana. In order to have probable cause, the officer must know enough of the facts and circumstances “‘to warrant a person of reasonable caution in believing’ the vehicle contained a criminal quantity of marijuana.” In this case, Glennon testified at the evidentiary hearing that the bag contained what appeared to be “about” one-ounce of marijuana, a noncriminal quantity of marijuana that would not give rise to probable cause. Even in conjunction with Sheridan’s shaking and nervous behavior, the facts and circumstances were not such that “tipped the scales to probable cause.”

The SJC also considered the plain view exception to the warrant requirement. The plain view doctrine requires that the officer be lawfully in the position to see the object with a lawful right of access to the object, the object’s criminal nature is readily apparent, and that the officer discovered the object inadvertently. The SJC reasoned that while the officers could see the marijuana from their lawful vantage point outside the vehicle, the officers did not have lawful access to enter the vehicle, “[b]ecause the observation of a noncriminal amount of marijuana did not alone give rise to probable cause” to justify entering the vehicle.

With regard to the cell phone search and text messages, the SJC rejected the trial court judge’s finding that the search was permissible because, upon entering the vehicle, the officer found a criminal quantity of marijuana giving rise to probable cause to arrest Sheridan and search his phone incident to his arrest. The arrest was based on the entry to the vehicle, which the SJC found invalid, thus “the thread leading to the search of the text messages is unwound, and the text messages must be suppressed.”

V. Conclusion

The SJC reversed the trial judge’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress and held that, in light of the decriminalization of one-ounce of marijuana, the officers lacked probable cause to enter the vehicle and seize the marijuana, arrest the defendant, and search his phone. The officer could only see a noncriminal amount of marijuana and did not have sufficient facts and circumstances to believe that there was a criminal quantity of marijuana or other evidence of a crime in the vehicle. Therefore, the entry into the vehicle, seizure of marijuana, and subsequent search of the cell phone was unlawful.

Contributing Editor: Rachel Murray

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