State Supreme Court allows firearm evidence despite 'unlawful' search

The state's high court on Tuesday reversed a lower court decision to suppress evidence of illicit firearms in what officers initially thought was a case of illegal drug use.

The case stems back to the summer of 2004, when Boston Police officers entered a Dorchester apartment building to investigate a matter on the third floor but smelled "fresh marijuana" coming from a second floor apartment, according to the Supreme Judicial Court opinion.

Officers knocked on the door and announced their presence, prompting a nervous and evasive tenant to emerge. The tenant, Matthew Streeter, at first denied anyone else was in the apartment and said he had smoked marijuana earlier in the day, but when pressed by officers, he admitted that his four-year-old daughter was in the apartment, as was a friend.

When Streeter's friend opened the door, two bags of marijuana were in plain view on a kitchen countertop. Officers entered the apartment to secure the evidence and performed a "protective sweep" to ensure that no one else was in the apartment who could remove or destroy evidence.

During their sweep, one officer frisked a blue duffel bag and felt what he thought to be a firearm. Upon obtaining a search warrant, officers opened the bag and discovered a sawed-off shotgun and a nine millimeter magazine.

According to the SJC, the officer's initial external search of the duffel bag was unauthorized, which was the rationale used by lower courts to throw out the evidence.

But the high court found that the police would have obtained a search warrant regardless of the initial search, based solely on the evidence of illegal drugs, and they would likely have discovered the shotgun legally.

Streeter and his friend, Lorenzo Bryant, were arrested for possession of marijuana after the original search, and Streeter was later charged with possession of a sawed-off shotgun, possession of a large-capacity firearm and not having a firearm identification card. In their ruling, the court found that "While the external search of the bag was not lawful...that evidence would still be admissible against the defendant if the police would have independently or inevitably discovered it pursuant to the search authorized by ... search warrant."

"The search for narcotics authorized by the excised warrant application would have certainly turned up the gun and ammunition evidence here," according to the opinion.