Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Clarifies Standard Necessary for Cops to Issue Exit Orders and Conduct Pat Frisks of Motorists

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today clarified the constitutional standard that must be satisfied by the Commonwealth to uphold a police officer’s exit order and patfrisk of a motorist.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Torres-Pagan.

The defendant was driving a car that had an expired inspection sticker and a cracked windshield.  These motor vehicle infractions attracted the attention of Springfield police officers, who decided to stop the defendant.  After the cops activated their emergency lights, the defendant drove for a short distance before pulling into a driveway.  As the officers exited their cruiser, the defendant got out of his car.  The defendant glanced back at his car on multiple occasions.  The cops then ordered the defendant to stay where he was, and the defendant complied.  The cops approached the defendant, handcuffed him, and patfrisked him.  There was a knife in the defendant’s pocket and the officers asked if he possessed other weapons in his car.  The defendant said yes, and in a subsequent search of the vehicle the cops found a gun near the driver’s seat.  The defendant was charged with crimes related to the illegal gun.  The defendant filed a motion to suppress the gun, arguing the cops had violated his constitutional rights by patfrisking him and the discovery of the gun was fruit of the poisonous tree.  A Springfield District Court judge agreed and suppressed the gun.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Appeals Court reversed, holding that the patfrisk was lawful.  The defendant appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, which agreed with the district court judge that the patfrisk was unlawful and the gun should have been suppressed.

The SJC first concluded the stop of the defendant’s car was appropriate, given the cracked windshield and the expired inspection sticker.  The question was whether the subsequent patfrisk passed constitutional muster.  The longstanding rule has been that the cops may patfrisk a suspect who has been properly stopped only when the cops have reasonable suspicion that the suspect is armed and dangerous.  The Court acknowledged it had caused confusion over the years by not clearly articulating the different standards necessary to issue an exit order and to patfrisk a driver.  In this case, the Court clarified that a cop may order a driver out of his car during a traffic stop in three scenarios: (1) the cop reasonably believes his safety (or someone else’s safety) is threatened; (2) the cop has reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed; or (3) the cop is conducting a search of the car for some other (lawful) reason.  However, in order to patfrisk the driver after he has been ordered to exit his car, the police need more – there needs to be a reasonable suspicion that the suspect is armed and dangerous.  In this case, the Court concluded the police had not established reasonable suspicion to believe the defendant was armed and dangerous after he got out of his car.  The cops could see the defendant’s entire body, including his hands, as he stood next to his car.  The defendant obeyed the police orders to stay still.  Finally, it did not appear the defendant was trying to hide anything.  The Court said that while the cops may have found the defendant’s behavior surprising, there was insufficient evidence that he was armed and dangerous.  Therefore, the patfrisk was unconstitutional along with the ensuing search of the defendant’s car.  The gun will no longer be admissible against the defendant in court.