A federal appeals court today upheld the conviction of a Dorchester man who pleaded guilty to trying to burn down the businesses and residences of people who annoyed him, from Roslindale to Cambridge, over a two-year period.
The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston agreed with Jose Baez that evidence from a GPS device that monitored one of his cars for almost a year without a warrant would now be inadmissible under a 2012 Supreme Court decision. In 2010, the device alerted a federal agent to the presence of Baez's car near an arson fire on Firth Road in Roslindale; at that point, Boston Police arrested him.
But, the court continued, the evidence from the device, even if it were in place for such a long time, was still admissible because it was collected before the Supreme Court decision and because police really had a good reason to believe Baez was up to no good and therefore were entitled to a "good faith exception:"
Contrary to Baez's claims, Agent Oppedisano was not taking a shot in the dark when he installed the GPS device on Baez's Chevrolet Caprice; the ATF had ample reason to suspect that Baez had set the 2009 fires at Jamaica Plain Auto Body and Back Bay Dental. Specifically, the ATF knew that: (1) Baez had been a customer at, and had had disputes with, both businesses; (2) he owned a Caprice with the same distinguishing features as the one seen on the surveillance tapes at the scenes of both fires; and (3) he was the only individual the ATF had identified who fit both of those characteristics. The ATF also had reason to believe that Baez might engage in further arson. Given his altercations with both Jamaica Plain Auto Body and Back Bay Dental in the time period before the fires, Baez exhibited some of the traits of a serial arsonist, defined (according to an expert affidavit that is part of the record in this case) as a person who commits "three or more arsons at separate locations, with a cooling-off period in between," to relieve stress or exact revenge. Though the tracking went on for nearly a year, apparently without any evidence of criminal activity on Baez's part, the record in this case also establishes that it is not uncommon for a significant amount of time (often months, but sometimes years) to pass between a serial arsonist's fires. The particularly lethal nature of Baez's July 2009 fire provided further cause for concern: that fire was set in the front vestibule of a residential building in the middle of the night. In short, as in Knotts, the reality here "hardly suggests abuse."