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Massachusetts Supreme Court Rules Homeless Shelters Entitled to 4th Amendment Privacy Protections

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s recent decision of Commonwealth v. Porter P., a juvenile, focused on whether a person temporarily staying in room in a homeless transitional center is entitled to a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ against unlawful searches and searches. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in a 5-2 decision, ruled that they do!

By way of background, the juvenile defendant and his mother had moved into a room at the Roxbury Multi-Service Center Family House Shelter in March 2006, which provides temporary housing for homeless families and assists them towards securing a permanent home. A few months later, the shelter’s director heard rumors that the juvenile defendant had a gun and then contacted the Boston Police Department. The next morning, five Boston Police Officers arrived at the shelter, and with the permission from the Roxbury shelter’s directors, searched the juvenile’s room and found a .40 caliber Glock firearm. The juvenile was immediately arrested for Unlawful Possession of a Firearm; Unlawful Possession of Ammunition; and Delinquency.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in ruling for the juvenile defendant, found that

“the room that the juvenile and his mother shared at the shelter was a transitional living space, but it was nonetheless their home…”.

As a result, they had a reasonable expectation of privacy in their ‘home’ at the shelter, and the Boston Police Officers’ search, without a warrant or consent by them, was violative of their 4th Amendment Right to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Justice Ralph Gants, the author of the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision in this case, ruled that even the shelter’s director did not have the ‘actual authority’ to consent to the police entry into the room to search for a gun. Justice Gants explained that the Roxbury shelter’s director was not a co-inhabitant of the room, and although the shelter’s guidelines permitted them to call the police, the guidelines did not expressly authorize the police to enter a resident’s room and to search for evidence of a crime without consent or a warrant.

Boston Criminal Lawyer Lefteris K. Travayiakis Offers Further Explanation on the 4th Amendment:

The 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights guarantees that citizens shall be free from unlawful searches and seizures by government officials. In order for this guarantee to apply, a person must have an ‘expectation of privacy’ in the area that is the focus of the search.

The court measures whether a defendant has an expectation of privacy by determining:

  1. whether the defendant has manifested a subjective expectation of privacy in the object of the search; and
  2. whether society is willing to recognize that expectation as reasonable.

Most of us understand that you have an ‘expectation of privacy’ in your home, or in your car, or in your office…but what about when you’re staying over a friends house, or staying at a motel, or you stored your suitcase in the trunk of your friend’s car? In those situations, a court might not always find that you have an expectation of privacy.

In determining whether a defendant has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place that was searched, the court often looks to a number of factors. Some factors may include whether he owned the premises; whether he controlled access to it or if it was freely accessible to others; whether the defendant took normal precautions to protect his privacy in that place.

If the police have entered and searched your home, office, vehicle, or other place where you believe you might have an expectation of privacy, you may have a legitimate argument for challenging that search and having that evidence suppressed or excluded from your criminal case. Many times, the strength of the prosecutor’s case against you is determined by whether or not your criminal defense lawyer is successful in challenging that search and the evidence that was seized.

Whether you were stopped in your car, or if your home was searched either with or without a warrant, it is critical to your defense that a competent and experienced criminal lawyer evaluates all possible challenges to the evidence that was seized. Throughout my years as a criminal defense lawyer in Boston, Massachusetts, I have been very successful in litigating a wide variety of motions to suppress and getting evidence thrown out.

If you have been the victim of an unlawful search, either with or without a Search Warrant, call Boston Criminal Lawyer Lefteris K. Travayiakis 24/7 to have him evaluate your case. To schedule a Free Consultation, e-mail or call him directly at 617-325-9500.

Click here to read the full opinion of Commonwealth v. Porter P., a juvenile.