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Massachusetts Defendant Not Entitled to “Target Standing” Even If Subject of Investigation

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court addressed the issue whether a defendant, who was the object of the police investigation, may still move to suppress evidence seized from the co-defendant under the theory of “target standing”.  Target standing is a legal theory that permits a defendant, who is charged with a possessory offense, such as unlawful possession of drugs or guns, to challenge the lawfulness of the seizure of that evidence even though it may have been seized by police from a co-defendant or other third-party.

In the case of Commonwealth v. Santiago, the SJC held that, a challenge to the suppression of evidence on the theory of target standing does not apply unless the defendant is charged with a possessory offense, even though he may have been the primary suspect in the police investigation.

The case arose from a police patrol of an area known to them for drug activity.  While on patrol, he observed the defendant and another man in what he believed to be a drug transaction.  Notably, the officer did not see any specific item of the purported exchange.  Nonetheless, he approached and stopped both men and, after a search of the other man, the officer recovered cocaine.  Both the defendant and the other man were arrested.  The other man was charged with possession of the cocaine; while the defendant, Santiago, was charged with distribution of the cocaine.

Prior to trial, the defendant moved to suppress the cocaine found on the other person by challenging the lawfulness of the police stopping and searching both men.  The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that, although the motion judge was correct that there lacked probable cause to search the other man’s pocket where the cocaine was ultimately seized from, the SJC denied to characterize the violation as ‘egregious’ so as to extend the ‘target standing rule’ to these circumstances.

The Supreme Judicial Court explained that the purpose of these challenges is to deter future police misconduct by barring, in a current prosecution, the admission of evidence that the police obtained by way of violating a person’s rights.  The rule balances between the deterrent purpose and permitting the judge to consider highly relevant evidence of guilt.  Massachusetts appellate courts have suggested that, in cases of “distinctly egregious police conduct”, the need to create a deterrent effect by recognizing the theory of ‘target standing’.

In this regard, in cases where police engage in ‘distinctly egregious’ conduct that constitutes a significant violation of a person’s rights, it may be appropriate for a defendant to raise a challenge under the theory of target standing.

The SJC declined to consider the circumstances of this case as ‘egregious’, citing the officer’s knowledge of the area as a high crime area and who had made many drug-related arrests there; and had observed what he believed, based on his training and experience, to be a drug transaction.  At the very least, the SJC held that the officer had reasonable suspicion of suspected drug activity and to conduct an ‘investigatory stop’.  Assuming that an investigatory stop was justified, but that there was no probable cause to arrest the defendant, the SJC agreed with the motion judge that there was no reason justifying the eventual search by reaching into the other man’s pocket.

The question then becomes, the SJC explained, whether the police intentionally violated the man’s rights by reaching into his pocket and removing the cocaine, thereby constituting an “egregious” violation of rights.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court answered no…

On the issue then of whether Santiago could challenge the cocaine under a theory of “target standing”, the SJC concluded he could not.  Although Santiago was the target of the investigation, so was the other man from whom the cocaine was seized.  In other words, the SJC held that the facts of this case do not warrant extending the principle of target standing to Santiago on the ground that, if it were not recognized, that unlawful police conduct will go unsanctioned.

Massachusetts Criminal Appeals Lawyer Lefteris K. Travayiakis is available 24/7 for consultation on all appeals from convictions of Massachusetts crimes.  Submit a Request for a Free Consultation or call 617-325-9500.