Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Gun Conviction, Despite Trial Judge’s Incomplete Jury Instructions

In a split decision, the Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld the gun conviction resulting from a motor vehicle stop by a state trooper in Lawrence.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Silvelo

In March of 2014, a trooper stopped a car driving on 495 in Lawrence for failing to have a proper inspection sticker.  The defendant’s mother was the driver, the defendant was the front-seat passenger, and there were four other people (including two children) in the back seat.  The trooper approached the car and noticed the defendant was not wearing a seat belt, which is a civil violation in Massachusetts.  When the trooper requested the defendant produce identification, he (the defendant) took an object out of his cargo pants and dropped it between the front passenger seat and the center console.  The trooper believed the object might have been a weapon.  Upon obtaining the defendant’s identification, the trooper returned to his cruiser and learned the defendant was the subject of several outstanding arrest warrants.  The trooper called for backup and when other officers arrived several minutes later, the defendant was removed from the car and arrested.  Once the defendant was handcuffed, the trooper returned to the car and searched the front passenger compartment, finding a .38 caliber snub-nosed revolver loaded with four rounds of ammunition.  The defendant was charged with unlawful possession of a loaded gun.  Following his conviction by a Lawrence District Court jury, the defendant appealed.

The defendant first challenged the denial of the motion to suppress he had filed prior to trial.  The defendant had argued the trooper’s search of the car had been unconstitutional, and therefore the gun should have been suppressed.  The parties agreed it had been proper for the trooper to stop the car (for the inspection sticker violation), and the trooper was permitted to request identification from the defendant (for the seat belt violation).  The question became whether it was appropriate for the trooper to search the passenger compartment after the defendant had been handcuffed and placed into a police vehicle.  The Appeals Court agreed with the motion judge that the trooper had acted constitutionally in performing a limited search to ensure the object he saw the defendant drop next to his seat was not a weapon.  Massachusetts caselaw has long held that officers are not required to gamble with their personal safety, and if a cop reasonably believes a defendant has a weapon, a search is proper.

The defendant next argued that he is entitled to a new trial because the trial judge did not instruct the jury that the prosecution needed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew the gun was loaded.  Following the defendant’s trial, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that such an instruction is necessary in these types of cases.  The three justices in the majority acknowledged the jurors did not receive the proper instruction regarding the defendant’s knowledge that the gun was loaded.  However, the majority concluded that because the bullets were visible by a visual examination of the gun, the defendant must have known the gun was loaded (and therefore his conviction should stand).  Two justices dissented, reasoning that even if the bullets were visible, the defendant did not necessarily see them.  The stop happened at nighttime and there was no evidence how the defendant came into possession of the gun.  The defendant might have been handed the gun by another passenger immediately before the trooper approached him.  Therefore, the dissent concluded the defendant should have been awarded a new trial.