In a troubling decision issued today, the Massachusetts Appeals Court upheld a district court judge’s ruling that allowed a police officer to seize the defendant, later found to be carrying a gun, for no reason other than he was walking next to a man who was wanted for a prior shooting. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Ramirez.
There was a shooting in Haverhill that injured a passerby on March 25, 2015. A police investigation determined the shooter was a man named Joshua Perez, and an arrest warrant was lodged against him. A few days later, a detective spotted Perez walking down the street with the defendant. The detective identified himself as a police officer and said “Come here, I want to talk to you” to the two men. Perez obeyed the order and walked toward the detective, but the defendant walked away while adjusting his waistband in a manner that was consistent with carrying a firearm. The detective again ordered the defendant to stop and this time the defendant complied, joining Perez near the back of the detective’s cruiser. The detective called for backup and other officers arrived on the scene in short order. Perez was arrested and the cops patfrisked the defendant, finding a knife and a gun on his person. The defendant was arrested and ultimately convicted of carrying a loaded gun without a license and defacing a firearm serial number. He appealed.
The sole issue on appeal was whether the defendant’s motion to suppress, which had been litigated prior to his trial, was properly denied. The defendant argued the detective lacked constitutional authority to seize him on the date of his arrest. If the seizure was unconstitutional, the Commonwealth would not have been permitted to introduce the gun at the trial because the gun would have been the “fruit” of the unlawful seizure. A Haverhill District Court judge ruled the seizure of the defendant (and subsequent patfrisk) was constitutional and the Appeals Court agreed. The Court correctly concluded the defendant was seized by the detective as soon as the detective ordered him to “come here.” At that point, a reasonable person would not have believed he was free to leave, which is the moment at which a seizure occurs. The Court next pointed out that a police officer usually cannot seize a person unless the officer has reasonable suspicion based on specific and articulable facts that the defendant has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. Here, everyone agreed the defendant had not acted suspiciously before his seizure. That should have been the end of the analysis and the Court should have concluded that the defendant’s lack of suspicious conduct rendered his seizure unconstitutional. Instead, the Court ruled, “an officer may temporarily freeze a scene for the limited time reasonably necessary to safely execute an an arrest warrant for a person accused of using a firearm in the commission of a violent felony.” The Court went on to justify the defendant’s seizure as a minimal intrusion designed to ensure the safety of the police officer. The Court’s conclusion is unsupported by the facts of the case. By ordering the defendant, who was carrying a gun, to stay at the scene, the detective was alone, outnumbered, and in a more dangerous situation than if he (the detective) had simply ordered the defendant to walk away. The Court further concluded that the patfrisk was proper, given the detective’s observation of the defendant grabbing at his waistband.
We should all be alarmed when judges rule it’s acceptable for police officers to detain individuals when there is absolutely no evidence they have committed a crime. This is a dangerous decision and it should be reversed by the Supreme Judicial Court.