In Commonwealth v. Ilya I., SJC -11637 (February 13, 2015), the SJC reversed the Appeals Court and upheld a juvenile court judge’s dismissal of a delinquency complaint for lack of probable cause. The juvenile was charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute after the police found thirteen individually wrapped bags of marijuana inside a clear plastic sandwich bag in the juvenile’s groin area during a pat frisk. Notably, the SJC took the juvenile’s age into account when considering the totality of the circumstances.
The Commonwealth relied on the following factors in their argument that the four corners of the application for complaint set forth probable cause for intent to distribute: (1) the quantity and packaging of the marijuana secreted in the juvenile’s groin area; (2) the juvenile’s association with a group of individuals engaged in conduct consistent with a drug transaction; (3) the juvenile’s nervous demeanor during the encounter with the police; (4) the odor of unburnt marijuana; (5) the traffic pattern of the vehicle in which the juvenile was a passenger; and (6) the lack of drug paraphernalia on the juvenile’s person. The SJC answered each one of these arguments. As to the juvenile’s demeanor, the Court said as follows: “The Commonwealth claims that the juvenile “looked nervously” at the police officer as the juvenile crossed Washington Street and entered the vehicle. This characterization vastly overstates the juvenile’s apparent reaction to becoming aware of the police presence in the area. The narrative states only that the juvenile “walk[ed] away in a hurried manner looking back at the officers several times.” Even if the juvenile’s behavior properly could be characterized as nervous, it lacks value in the probable cause assessment. . . While nervousness in an encounter with a police officer may be factor in the probable cause analysis, see Commonwealth v. Sinforoso, 434 Mass. 320, 324 (2001), it lacks force in the circumstances of this case where a sixteen year old boy is under scrutiny by the police.”
The SJC concluded as follows: “In the analysis of the totality of the circumstances, the inquiry shifts away from the relative significance of each individual factor to their collective effect in the probable cause calculus. Even in combination, however, these factors are insufficient to establish probable cause to believe that the juvenile intended to distribute the marijuana found on his person. Although the question is close, our analysis accords greater significance to the nature and amount of the substance, and that it was possessed by a juvenile. . . As in Humberto H., 466 Mass. at 566-567, the juvenile’s age detracts from the probative value that otherwise might be accorded to his nervous demeanor and his association with other young black males on a street corner.”