Massachusetts Appeals Court Makes it Easier for Cops to Stop Suspected Drug Dealers

In a terrible decision issued today, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled an experienced police officer can stop and detain a suspected drug dealer even if the officer does not see the suspect exchange an object with the alleged buyer.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Sanders

On July 5, 2013, a Lynn police officer saw a car with Maine license plates stopped on the side of a road that was known for its drug activity.  The only occupant of the car was talking on her cell phone.  The officer testified that it was common for people who wanted to buy drugs to stop in that neighborhood, call their dealers, and wait for the drugs to be delivered.  The officer drove around the block and when he returned, he saw the defendant reach through the open passenger-side window, make a “passing motion” with his hand, quickly remove his hand, and walk away.  The officer did not see the defendant and the woman in the car exchange any objects.  The officer recognized the defendant as an individual he had previously arrested for distributing cocaine.  The officer yelled out the defendant’s name and said he wanted to talk to him.  The defendant stopped and the officer accused him of participating in a drug transaction.  There was cash sticking out of the defendant’s pocket and the officer removed three $50 bills.  During a subsequent pat-frisk, the officer located a large folding knife in the defendant’s pocket.  Because the length of the knife violated a city ordinance, the officer arrested the defendant.  The police discovered three small bags of crack cocaine and one small bag of heroin (along with $801 in cash) on the defendant’s person during a search at the station.  The defendant was charged with, and ultimately convicted of, possession with intent to distribute cocaine (subsequent offense).

Prior to his trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress his stop and seizure by the police (along with the drugs that were found during the search).  The defendant reasoned the officer did not have probable cause to believe he had committed a crime.  Massachusetts appellate court have long ruled that experienced police officers are entitled to draw certain inferences from cryptic behavior to conclude that someone is engaged in a drug deal.  The Supreme Judicial Court has said factors to consider are: the presence of an unusual transaction; furtive conduct by the participants; the character of the neighborhood where the transaction occurs; and the level of experience of the officer witnessing the transaction (who is able to testify that the conduct appeared consistent with a street-level drug deal).  The SJC recently said the officer must observe the suspect move in such a way as to provide factual support for the inference that the parties exchanged an object.  In this case, the Appeals Court concluded the observations made by the (experienced) officer were sufficient to establish probable cause to stop the defendant.  The transaction occurred in a neighborhood known for drug activity and, according to the Court, the officer’s knowledge that similar “car meets” occurred between drug dealers and users in the same general location allowed the officer to infer that the defendant had hurriedly engaged in a drug deal.  The Appeals Court was forced to acknowledge that the cop had not witnessed the exchange of an object.  However, the Court reasoned that because the defendant was known to the officer as having previously been arrested for distributing cocaine, the probable cause standard was satisfied.

This case marks a departure from search and seizure jurisprudence in Massachusetts.  Hopefully the Supreme Judicial Court will decide to review the case and reverse.