The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday ruled that Northeastern University police officers unconstitutionally detained a man who was later found to be carrying a handgun. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Harris.
In September of 2015, several university police officers received a dispatch that two black men in their early 20s and wearing hoodies were “casing” bike racks near the library. There had been a recent history of bike thefts at that location. Twenty minutes after hearing the dispatch, the cops found the defendant and his male friend (who matched the description of the suspicious men) along with a female who had not been previously mentioned. The two men were riding bikes. Officers engaged the group in conversation and asked where they were coming from. They responded that they had just eaten at a local fast food restaurant. The cops asked the men to get off their bikes and they complied. In response to the officers’ questions, the men denied they had stolen the bikes. The defendant was asked if he had had previous problems with the cops, and he disclosed he was wearing a GPS monitor. At that point, the officers asked the three individuals to identify themselves. The defendant provided his name, date of birth, and address, while his friends provided identification cards. As one officer called the defendant’s information into dispatch, a second officer saw a knife clipped to the defendant’s waistband. The cops seized the knife and told the defendant he was going to be patfrisked. The defendant fled, dropping a gun in the process. He was ultimately apprehended and charged with unlawfully carrying a firearm. He filed a motion to suppress the gun, which was denied by a superior court judge. Following his conviction, he appealed and the Appeals Court concluded his motion to suppress should have been allowed.
There were two issues related to the defendant’s motion to suppress. The Court first needed to determine at what point the defendant had been seized, and second whether there was reasonable suspicion he was involved in criminal activity at the moment of his seizure. A seizure occurs for constitutional purposes when a reasonable person would not feel free to leave. Police officers are allowed to approach and talk to anyone on the street, and this does not constitute a seizure. But when the police conduct makes clear that a person will not be allowed to walk away, a seizure has occurred. In this case, the Court determined the three individuals were seized by the time they were asked to identify themselves. The men had already been ordered to get off their bikes, two of the three individuals had provided identification cards to the cops, and the defendant had given his identifying information, which was being confirmed with dispatch. Any reasonable person would have believed walking away from the cops at that moment was not an option.
The next question is whether the seizure was justified. In order to seize someone, the police must reasonably suspect the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. While it was proper for the cops to approach the defendant and his friends and engage them in conversation, there was nothing about the conversation that allowed the cops to conclude the defendant was involved in criminal activity. There was no proof the bikes were stolen and there was no justification for the police to demand identification from any of the three individuals. Therefore, the defendant’s motion to suppress the gun should have been allowed.
The defendant will be sent back to the superior court for a new trial, but without the gun as evidence, the prosecution will likely have to dismiss the case.