The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday upheld a Springfield man’s gun conviction, ruling the police had properly stopped and seized him after observing the transfer of the weapon. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Suriel.
In November of 2013, a Springfield police officer was conducting surveillance on a city barbershop. The officer watched as two men entered the barbershop followed by a third man (later identified as the codefendant) who was holding a bag. The defendant joined in the conversation shortly thereafter. The officer continued to watch as the four men left the barbershop and continued to talk as they walked down an adjacent driveway. The cop then saw the codefendant hand a gun to the defendant, who quickly put the gun inside his jacket. The defendant got into a car being driven by another person and left the scene. The officer conducting the surveillance provided the defendant’s description to other officers in the area. A cop driving an unmarked cruiser pulled in front of the defendant’s car and blocked it from moving. As officers approached the defendant, they saw him looking down and “gesturing feverishly” toward the right side of his seat. Two of the cops dragged the defendant out of the car and later found a .22 caliber Smith & Wesson firearm (along with a magazine) near where the defendant was sitting. Following his convictions for carrying a firearm and carrying ammunition without a license, the defendant appealed.
The sole issue on appeal was whether the police had the constitutional authority to stop and seize the defendant and search the car for the gun. The defendant had filed a motion to suppress the gun before his trial, and a Springfield District Court judge concluded the police conduct had been lawful. The Appeals Court agreed.
In order to stop and detain a person, the police must reasonably suspect the person is engaged in criminal conduct. The defendant here argued the police did not have reasonable suspicion to believe he was breaking the law. After all, it is not illegal in Massachusetts to carry a gun – it only becomes illegal to carry a gun when the carrier is not properly licensed. The Appeals Court held the additional observations made by the police officer conducting surveillance was sufficient to satisfy the reasonable suspicion standard. The Court said it was meaningful that the defendant and his accomplices had moved from inside the barbershop, where there were witnesses, to a secluded area outside. The transfer of the gun was done in a hasty manner and the participants all left immediately after the conclusion of the transaction. The Court also held the police were justifiably suspicious that the transaction did not happen at a business dedicated to the transfer of guns. Reasonable suspicion, reminded the Court, does not mean absolute certitude. It means only that a police officer may reasonably infer a crime was taking place. Given all of the circumstances of this case, according to the Appeals Court, the police passed the reasonable suspicion test.
Massachusetts has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country. As a practical matter, if Massachusetts police officers believe you are carrying a gun in public, you are going to be stopped and interrogated. If you have been charged with a gun crime, it is crucial you talk immediately to an experienced criminal defense attorney.