Appeals court says marijuana charges stand in police entry case


NORTH ADAMS >> The Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled marijuana charges against a city family still apply, despite that evidence being discovered following an "unlawful" entry by police.

That decision overturns a Northern Berkshire District Court ruling by Judge Michael Ripps ordering the suppression of that drug evidence.

Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless said Friday, "The court carefully declined to not exclude evidence that was lawfully seized despite concurrent but unconnected police missteps," and said his office will continue prosecuting the case.

Attempts to contact the attorney representing the Suters family Friday were unsuccessful.

The charge stems back to Jan. 4, 2014 when state police received a 911 call from an East Quincy Street home during which a man and woman yelling about a water problem could be heard before the call was disconnected.

State police gave the information to North Adams Police, who responded to the address about 11:30 p.m.

They spoke with Monique Suters, who was concerned about the possibility of the water leak setting off an electrical fire and asked officers to follow her son into the basement to assist with shutting off the water.

In the basement, officers said they could smell fresh marijuana and saw water gathering in pools on the floor and running down the walls.

While looking for the shut-off valve, Monique Suters' husband, Whitney Suters entered the basement from outside, identified himself, told police he knew where the shut-off was and went into another room in the basement, closing the door behind him.

One officer asked the second to follow Whitney Suters into the room because, "he did not feel comfortable with him being in the room by himself," according to part of the 21-page decision.

When police tried to open the door, Whitney Suters pushed it back against the officer. Police then grabbed him, a "minor scuffle" began and ended with Suters on the ground being placed into handcuffs.

While he was being placed into custody, police spotted a mason jar believed to contain more than an ounce of marijuana. Police arrested him on a charge of assault and battery on a police officer and contacted a drug investigator who applied for a search warrant. The warrant was executed and recovered more marijuana and paraphernalia.

All three Suters were eventually charged with drug crimes as a result of the discovery of the marijuana.

All three moved to have the marijuana evidence suppressed, claiming the warrantless entry into the room was unlawful.

Ripps allowed the motion on the grounds the state had failed to show justification for officers to enter that room.

The court said there was "no dispute," the first entry into the house was justified via consent of an occupant.

The court did say, however, that when Whitney Suters closed the door to the second room, "a reasonable person in the position of the police officers would understand that any consent that may have previously been given ... was withdrawn."

The state argued the officer was justified in entering the room due to the potential of an emergency caused by the water leaking on to the pipes, walls and exposed wiring.

The court disagreed with the state on that point.

"It was not necessary ... for the police to open the door and follow (Suters) into the second room," according to the decision.

"(Whitney Suters) stated he knew where the shut-off valve was located and immediately entered the second room and closed the door."

"There was no indication that he was incapable of turning off the water or needed assistance in doing so."

The court noted police did not see the marijuana jar until they had lawfully placed Whitney under arrest for the assault and battery.

Even though the jar was spotted after the "unlawful" entry, that entry wasn't exploited by the officers to observe the jar, but instead it was spotted following Whitney Suters', "independent act of pushing the door into the police officer, which established probable cause for (his) arrest."

The court ruled, even though the police lacked justification for opening the door, there was no, "evidence of flagrant misconduct or bad faith," especially in light of the fact they were invited into the basement to assist with a genuine emergency.

Contact Bob Dunn at 413-496-6249.


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