The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed a Lawrence man’s conviction for illegally carrying a firearm because the police arrested him without first establishing probable cause he was committing a crime. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Santiago.
During the summer of 2014, Massachusetts state troopers were investigating a drug dealing ring in Lawrence. The defendant was the primary target, and a confidential informant told the cops that the defendant was selling cocaine and using guns. The investigation culminated on August 6, 2014, when a team of law enforcement officers from the state police, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration began conducting surveillance on the defendant. The officers saw the defendant and three other men leave a Lawrence home in an SUV. The defendant was sitting in the back seat behind the front passenger. The SUV stopped several times in Lawrence and made its way to Lynn, where it stopped at more locations. As the SUV appeared to be returning to Lawrence, it suddenly doubled its speed. The surveillance team believed it had been spotted by the occupants of the SUV, and decided to initiate a stop. After seeing the SUV cross over the double yellow line, a state trooper turned on his emergency lights and the SUV pulled over right away. The trooper’s cruiser and three other undercover police vehicles surrounded the SUV, preventing it from driving away. Four or five officers approached the SUV and yelled for the occupants to show their hands, with at least two of the officers pointing their guns as the vehicle. The defendant reached forward and appeared to stuff an object in the seat-back pocket. One of the officers opened the left rear door of the SUV and ordered the back-seat passengers not to move. The officer then spotted a loaded revolved in the seat-back pocket in front of the defendant. The defendant was removed from the SUV and arrested. There was $5,500 in cash on his person, but no drugs. He was charged with illegally carrying a firearm, second offense. He filed a motion to suppress the gun, which was denied by an Essex Superior Court judge. After being convicted by a jury, the defendant appealed.
On appeal, the defendant argued the police arrested him without probable cause, and therefore the gun should not have been admitted at his trial. The Appeals Court agreed and reversed his conviction. The issue was whether the police conduct constituted a so-called “threshold inquiry,” which required only that the police have reasonable suspicion that the defendant was involved in criminal activity; or a full-fledged arrest, which required the police have probable cause (which is a higher standard than reasonable suspicion) that the defendant had committed a crime. It’s a difficult question because the distinction between a threshold inquiry and an arrest is sometimes subtle and a matter of degree that is not always easy to distinguish. In this case, the Appeals Court determined that the police conduct – boxing in the SUV and having multiple officers approach with their weapons drawn – was disproportionate to the degree of suspicion that prompted the intrusion. There was clearly reasonable suspicion for the cops to stop the SUV (both for the marked lanes violations and the drug dealing suspicions), but probable cause had not yet been established to justify an arrest. Therefore, if the SUV had been stopped (but not boxed in) and the cops had approached (but with no guns drawn), the motion to suppress probably would have been properly denied.
The Appeals Court acknowledged this case presented a close question, but ultimately concluded the motion to suppress should have been allowed. As a result, the case will be remanded to Essex Superior Court but without the gun, the continued prosecution of the defendant will be impossible.