Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Suppresses Gun Recovered from Roxbury Pedestrian

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court this week affirmed a district court judge’s decision to suppress a gun that was found on the fleeing defendant by Boston police officers.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Jones-Pannell.

The defendant was charged with carrying a firearm and resisting arrest following an incident in Roxbury.  The defendant, a black male, was walking on a sidewalk next to Norfolk Avenue at just past midnight.  Two Boston cops were on routine patrol in an unmarked cruiser.  The officers saw the defendant and began to follow him.  Neither officer recognized the defendant.  The defendant was walking with one hand inside of his pants between his crotch and his waist.  One of the officers asked the defendant twice if he could speak to him.  The defendant began walking more quickly away from the cruiser.  The cops then stopped and got out of their cruiser, saying “wait a minute” to the defendant in a loud voice.  The defendant started jogging away and the cops ran after him.  The cops caught up with the defendant and apprehended him, and during the arrest a handgun containing seven bullets fell out of his pants.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the gun.  A district court judge allowed the motion to suppress, concluding that the police conduct was unconstitutional.  The Appeals Court reversed, but on further appellate review the Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the district court judge and affirmed the allowance of the motion to suppress.

The Court first found that the defendant was seized, in the constitutional sense, when the cops loudly commanded him to “wait a minute.”  At that moment, the defendant would not have felt free to leave and he was essentially being compelled to interact with the police.  The question is whether the police officers reasonably suspected that the defendant was engaged in criminal activity at the time they ordered him to stop.

The district court judge said the only evidence suggesting that the defendant was committing a crime was the fact that he had his hand in his pants and was fleeing from the police.  Those two facts alone did not support the conclusion that the defendant was violating the law.  The judge said it was not relevant that the incident occurred just after midnight, and it was important that the police did not know the defendant and there were no reports of a crime having been recently committed in the area of the stop.

The Commonwealth’s major problem with the judge’s analysis was his conclusion that the stop did not occur in a high crime area, which is an important consideration in determining whether police conduct is appropriate.  However, the Supreme Judicial Court said the motion judge’s finding that this case did not involve a high-crime area was supported by the testimony (or lack thereof) by the arresting officers.  The Court pointed out that there was no testimony at the motion to suppress hearing that the street in question had been home to specific criminal activity.  While one of the officers testified that there had been gang activity in the area and there had been “some crime” reported in the neighborhood, he failed to provide specific information about the nature of the alleged criminal behavior.  The Court said that isolated incidents of firearms violation or the mere presence of gangs in the area does not compel a finding that a street is a high crime area.

Accordingly, the evidence in this case was insufficient to conclude that the defendant was committing a crime at the time of his arrest.  Because the gun was suppressed, the Commonwealth will no longer be able to prosecute the defendant.