The Massachusetts Appeals Court today affirmed a Quincy drug dealer’s conviction, holding that his stop by undercover drug detectives was constitutional. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. St. George.
In May of 2010, detectives assigned to the Quincy police drug control unit were conducting undercover surveillance. They watched a man named Robert Fitzmorris make a call from his cell phone and wait outside of an apartment complex. Within a minute, the defendant arrived in a car and picked up Fitzmorris. The cops followed the men as the defendant drove them to a nearby school parking lot. Fitzmorris got out of the car carrying a large paper bag in in hand and got into his own car while the defendant drove away by himself. The detectives believed they had witnessed a drug sale and decided to stop the two men. When officers approached Fitzmorris, identified themselves, and ordered him to stop, he sped away in his car. He was stopped shortly thereafter and the police asked what was in his bag. It turned out to be about a pound of marijuana.
Meanwhile, another officer stopped the defendant as he was driving away from the parking lot. The officer ordered him to turn off the car and when the defendant refused, the officer did it for him. The defendant was holding a wad of cash totaling $1,000 in his hand and appeared to be nervous. The detective got him out of the car, handcuffed him, and sat him on the sidewalk. The defendant was arrested when it was learned Fitzmorris possessed the marijuana. There was an additional $810 located in the defendant’s car along with cuff sheets (pieces of paper containing client names and amounts of money owed). Finally, there was a bank receipt establishing the defendant had $74,000 in a bank account (despite reporting to the police that he was unemployed). The defendant was convicted of distribution of marijuana in a school zone.
His primary argument on appeal was that the police lacked constitutional justification to stop and detain him. He had filed a motion to suppress his stop in the trial court, which was denied by the judge. Police officers are not permitted to detain somebody just because they have a hunch that a crime has been committed. Instead, the cops must have at least reasonable suspicion, based on specific and articulable facts, that the defendant has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. In these types of cases, defendants always argue the cops didn’t really know what happened (with respect to the alleged drug transaction) and were essentially guessing about what had occurred. Judges often reject these arguments, particularly if the officers involved are assigned to a drug task force. In this case, the Appeals Court came to the predictable conclusion that taken together, the detectives’ observations allowed them to reasonably suspect the defendant had sold drugs to Fitzmorris. The Court pointed out that the detectives saw Fitzmorris make a phone call and get into the defendant’s car with no bag. There was a short and “suspicious” drive that lasted only one block and Fitzmorris then got out with the bag. Fitzmorris didn’t stop when ordered to do so by the police and all of these events took place in a high-crime area. Based on these facts (often referred to as a “silent movie” by the appellate courts), experienced drug detectives were justified in determining the defendant had sold drugs and were therefore permitted to stop him.
Defendants file motions to suppress in most drug cases, and it is important they are litigated by experienced, aggressive defense attorneys.