SJC: District Court clerks may issue search warrants anywhere in the Commonwealth

For entire SJC opinion, click here: Commonwealth v. Mendes

The Supreme Judicial Court decided recently that District Court Clerks have the authority to issue search warrants throughout Massachusetts.

“As our discussion of them indicates, all the Commonwealth’s statutes relating to the issuance of search warrants by a District Court make clear by their language that the only territorial limitation placed on a District Court’s authority to issue a search warrant is the geographical boundary of the Commonwealth and its territorial waters,” Justice Margot Botsford wrote for the court in the unanimous ruling.

On February 16, 2007, Detective Sergeant Sean Balcom of the Barnstable police department applied to the First District Court of Barnstable, held at Barnstable (Barnstable District Court) for warrants to search two locations in the town of Bourne–117 Old Plymouth Road, apartment 2C, and 24 Yellow Pine Road, apartment 3–as well as a 1998 Chevrolet Tahoe automobile registered in the defendant’s name. Balcom submitted an affidavit in support of the applications that included the following information. The Barnstable police department had been investigating the involvement of the Mendes family– including the defendant–in cocaine distribution and organized crime in the Cape Cod area since 1999. Balcom learned from confidential informants that the defendant had moved from Hyannis to Bourne to evade that investigation. He discovered, through surveillance, a registry of motor vehicles query, and a board of probation records check, that the defendant was then living at 117 Old Plymouth Road in the Sagamore Beach section of Bourne.

A named informant told Balcom that the defendant resided at 117 Old Plymouth Road and used 24 Yellow Pine Road as a “stash house” to store cocaine and weapons. The informant stated that the defendant had supplied him with cocaine for the past one and one-half years and had sold him cocaine at both locations. He told Balcom he had most recently obtained four and one-half ounces of cocaine from the defendant on February 5, 2007, and that the defendant had retrieved the drugs from his Chevrolet Tahoe parked in the 24 Yellow Pine Road parking lot.

On the basis of Balcom’s affidavit, an assistant clerk-magistrate of the Barnstable District Court issued the two requested search warrants on February 16, 2007. Officers from the Bourne and Barnstable police departments executed the warrants the same day and found–between the two locations–drugs, cash, and drug paraphernalia. The defendant was present during the search at 24 Yellow Pine Road; drugs and cash were seized from his possession. Following and as a result of the two searches, the Bourne police sought and obtained two additional warrants to search a Nissan Maxima on February 18 and 20, 2007, again from the Barnstable District Court. When police executed the two warrants on February 19 and 20, 2007, respectively, they found and seized from the automobile cash, a .22 caliber pistol, a bag of white powder, and several bottles of pills.

A Barnstable County grand jury indicted the defendant for the offenses previously listed. Before trial in the Superior Court, the defendant moved to suppress the drugs and firearm seized pursuant to the search warrants. He argued that a District Court may not issue a search warrant for a location outside its territorial jurisdiction, unless the issuance of that warrant relates to a crime occurring within the particular court’s jurisdiction; and that because the Barnstable District Court does not have jurisdiction over the town of Bourne, see G.L. c. 218, § 1, and Bourne was the location of all the alleged offenses described in the search warrant affidavit, the Barnstable District Court lacked authority to issue the search warrants at issue. A judge in the Superior Court denied the defendant’s motion, and his subsequent motion to reconsider. A single justice of the Appeals Court denied the defendant’s application to file an interlocutory appeal. The defendant was tried on stipulated facts before a different Superior Court judge sitting without a jury, who found the defendant guilty on all the indictments.

The single issue in this case is the validity of the four search warrants. The defendant does not challenge the determination by the assistant clerk-magistrate that the affidavits of Sergeant Detective Balcom established probable cause to issue those warrants. His claim–as it was in support of his motion to suppress–is only that the warrants were invalid because a District Court may not lawfully issue a warrant to search a location beyond its territorial jurisdiction where, as in this case, the supporting affidavit does not describe criminal activity occurring within the geographical jurisdiction of that court. Contrary to the positions taken by the defendant, as well as the Commonwealth, we hold that where the application is supported by probable cause, a District Court judge or magistrate may issue a search warrant authorizing a search for evidence at any specified location in the Commonwealth, regardless whether the criminal activity to which the warrant application pertains is located within or outside that court’s territorial jurisdiction.

General Laws c. 276, § 1, provides in part:

“A court or justice authorized to issue warrants in criminal cases may, upon complaint on oath that the complainant believes that any of the property or articles hereinafter named are concealed in a house, place, vessel or vehicle or in the possession of a person anywhere within the commonwealth and territorial waters thereof, if satisfied that there is probable cause for such belief, issue a warrant identifying the property and naming or describing the person or place to be searched and commanding the person seeking such warrant to search for the … property or articles …” (emphases added).

This section contains two requirements relevant to the question at hand. First, to issue a search warrant, a particular court, or a judge or clerk-magistrate of that court, must be “authorized to issue warrants in criminal cases.” Second, the court so authorized, acting through a judge or a clerk, must find probable cause for the applicant’s belief that property or articles listed in the statute are “concealed in a house, place, vessel or vehicle or in the possession of a person anywhere within the commonwealth and territorial waters thereof.”

General Laws c. 218 applies to the District Courts. Section 33 of that chapter specifically authorizes clerks of the District Courts to issue search warrants, providing:

“A clerk, assistant clerk, temporary clerk or temporary assistant clerk, may … issue warrants, search warrants and summonses, returnable as required when such process are issued by said courts. No other person, except a judge, shall be authorized to issue warrants, search warrants or summonses” (emphasis added).

Section 35 of c. 218 specifies that a justice or special justice of the District Court likewise may “issue search warrants, returnable before a court or trial justice having jurisdiction of the trial or examination of the person charged with the crime.” Nothing in § 33 or § 35, nor any other provision of c. 218, limits a District Court’s authority to issue search warrants based on location either of the property or article sought, or the suspected criminal activity. The only arguable limitation concerning search warrants is the “return” provision in § 35, indicating that a search warrant is returnable before a court with jurisdiction over the crime charged.

“Where the language of a statute is clear, courts must give effect to its plain and ordinary meaning and … need not look beyond the words of the statute itself.” Massachusetts Broken Stone Co. v. Weston, 430 Mass. 637, 640 (2000). As our discussion of them indicates, all the Commonwealth’s statutes relating to the issuance of search warrants by a District Court make clear by their language that the only territorial limitation placed on a District Court’s authority to issue a search warrant is the geographical boundary of the Commonwealth and its territorial waters. Accordingly, we conclude that the assistant clerk-magistrate of the Barnstable District Court properly issued the search warrants in this case, and the defendant’s motion to suppress was appropriately denied.

Judgments affirmed.

About Attorney John J. MacLaughlan

John MacLaughlan is Massachusetts licensed attorney as well as a Boston police officer. John is currently assigned to the Youth Violence Strike Force (Gang Unit). He is a graduate of the Massachusetts School of Law with a concentration in Labor Law. He holds a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell as well as a Bachelors Degree in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. John has taught Defensive Tactics, Firearms, Use of Force, Applied Patrol Procedures, and Police Response to Active Shooters to sworn police officers and police academy recruits. Prior to becoming a Boston Police Officer, John served for 9 years as a police officer in Lowell, where he was a member of the Police Dive Team and Patrol Rifle Team.
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