Massachusetts Appeals Court Affirms Gun Conviction of Man Stopped After Lynn Firefight

The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday affirmed the gun conviction of a man who was stopped following a fight in Lynn, even though the defendant did not fit the description of any of the fight’s participants.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Johnson

In October of 2012, there was a shooting between at least two people in Lynn.  Eight people called 911 in a four-minute span to report the firefight.  One description of one of the shooters was a black male wearing a black jacket and red bandana.  Within three minutes, a veteran Lynn police officer approached the area of the shooting and entered a nearby public park.  The park is laid out over eight to ten blocks and has clusters of trees at both ends.  As the cop entered the park, he saw a person, later identified as the defendant, walking near one of the sections containing the trees.  The officer shined his flashlight at the defendant, who was about 25 feet away, and saw he was a black male with a hoodie pulled tightly around his face.  The officer told the defendant to put his hands on his head and the defendant did not immediately comply.  When the officer reached for his service weapon, the defendant raised his hands and the officer patfrisked him, finding a handgun in his pocket.  The defendant was arrested.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the gun, arguing that the police officer did not have reasonable suspicion to stop him.  A superior court judge disagreed and denied his motion.  Following his conviction, the defendant appealed.

The Appeals Court noted that the defendant was seized in the constitutional sense when the officer told him to put his hands on his head.  At that point, a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would not have felt he was free to leave.  The question was whether the officer had a reasonable suspicion based on specific and articulable facts that the defendant had been involved in the shooting.  The Court held it was reasonable for the officer to rely on the numerous calls to dispatch that reported the shooting, as the callers were personally witnessing the fight at the time they were calling the police.  The question is whether the callers provided a sufficiently detailed description of the shooters to justify the officer’s stop of the defendant.

The defendant was not wearing any clothing described by the callers.  The only characteristic that matched the callers’ description was that the defendant was a black male.  The Court acknowledged such a vague description did not support reasonable suspicion to justify the stop.  However, declaring that this case involves a “public safety emergency,” the Court concluded the officer acted properly in stopping the defendant.  The Court pointed out that there had been a gun fight only minutes earlier that had wounded at least one person.  One group of people involved in the fight had fled toward the park where the defendant was located.  Further, according to the Court, the defendant’s position (near the trees in an unlit section of the park) and his clothes (wearing a hoodie tightly pulled around his face) suggested he was trying to conceal himself.  It was proper, therefore, for the officer to reasonably suspect the defendant was involved in the gun fight and to detain him to investigate.

A serious crime should not lessen the constitutional principles that allow the government to stop and detain a citizen.  The defendant here had the misfortune of being a black man who was walking near a recent crime scene.  He was not convicted of a crime related to the shooting.  The officer testified at the motion hearing that the only connection between the defendant and the shooting was that the defendant was a black or Hispanic male and that the defendant “just stood out.”  This is a perfect example of a hunch that does not support reasonable suspicion to allow a police officer to stop an individual walking through a park.  Hopefully the Supreme Judicial Court will reverse this terrible decision by the Appeals Court.