PITTSFIELD -- A Superior Court judge has ruled that about two pounds of cocaine can’t be used as evidence to prosecute a Pittsfield man because authorities seized it without a warrant.
Police say Patrick Coyne, 31, was the intended recipient of a Federal Express package containing the drugs.
"Unfortunately for the Commonwealth [because this case involves the seizure of a significant quantity of cocaine], both the contents of the package and the items found in the defendant’s residence must be suppressed," wrote Judge Daniel Ford in his 10-page decision.
The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office plans to appeal the judge’s decision to a higher court. The cocaine is the foundation of the procecution’s case against Coyne, who faces a minimum of 15 years in prison if the case goes to trial and he’s found guilty.
Ford ruled that Coyne had "a reasonable expectation of privacy" with regard to the package. Police said the package contained about two pounds of cocaine worth more than $10,000. It was sent from Phoenix to Coyne’s Pittsfield address.
This right to privacy comes under the Fourth Amendment, the part of the Bill of Rights that protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizures.
"Judge Ford’s decision to suppress the evidence was merited and legally correct.
Assistant Berkshire District Attorney Richard M. Locke argued during a court hearing in April that since the package didn’t have Coyne’s real name on it -- it was addressed to a "Patty Coin" -- the defendant didn’t have the "expectation of privacy" and therefore had no right to fight the search.
The judge determined that Coyne "shouldn’t lose his Constitutional right to contest an unreasonable search simply because whoever filled out the address label on the package spelled his name incorrectly."
The judge also determined that although emergency circumstances allowed police with the Berkshire County Drug Task Force to seize the package, no circumstances gave them the right them to open it. He wrote nothing had stopped police from obtaining a warrant. Ford said that the prosecution’s reading on search and seizure law on this point "would stand the Fourth Amendment on its head."
According to court testimony from April and information contained in the judge’s decision, the package in question was flagged in Arizona by law enforcement. State police based in Pittsfield were notified about the package, which was retrieved by the task force before it arrived at Coyne’s address. Two separate police dogs detected drugs in the package, Ford wrote.
The task force had originally planned to open the package after a law enforcement officer dressed in a Fed Ex uniform delivered it to Coyne and they had obtained an "anticipatory warrant" for that purpose. But when it was discovered that the Fed Ex website listed the package as being in the hands of police and that Coyne had a "record of armed violence," the task force’s plan was deemed too risky and was called off.
Police said Fed Ex refused their request to alter the information on the website, telling them it was company policy.
Left with the package and an unusable warrant, police opened the box to make sure there was cocaine inside. They did so in order to receive a new warrant to search Coyne’s house, according to testimony.
Police obtained the warrant and raided Coyne’s residence where they allegedly discovered cocaine-dealing paraphernalia covered with drug residue.
Because of the judge’s decision, that evidence cannot be used at trial either.
"I do understand that it is easy to pass judgment in hindsight with any criminal investigation, especially narcotics investigations," said Gianacopoulos. "But having said that, whenever there is a violation of constitutional proportions of someone’s privacy rights, the commonwealth has to be taken to task. This case involved admirable and honest law enforcement officers Š but mistakes were made that violated my client’s right to privacy and the judge had no choice but to throw out the evidence."
A hearing in the case is scheduled for next month. Coyne remains free on $7,500 bail.
In 2003, he pleaded guilty in Berkshire Superior Court to seven charges, including assault with intent to kill, cocaine trafficking and various weapons charges, for the May 2002 shooting of a New Lebanon, N.Y., man and the assault of two others at a party in Pittsfield.
According to court records, Coyne was sentenced to between seven and nine years in prison followed by two years of probation, which ended in November 2010.
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