Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Profoundly Changes Standard Relating to Seizure of Suspects

In an important case delivered today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court drastically changed the analysis for determining if a suspect has been seized by the police in the constitutional sense.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Matta

In November of 2005, the Holyoke Police Department received two tips from a caller who saw a person place a gun under the front seat of a black car containing two male and two female occupants.  The car was parked in a dangerous area of the city.  Cops arrived at the scene within three to four minutes and found a dark green Honda.  there were two people in the car, including the defendant in the passenger seat.  The officers parked behind the Honda and got out of their cruiser.  The defendant then got out of the Honda, adjusted his waistband, and began walking away.  One of the cops yelled to him, “hey, come here for a second.”  The defendant made eye contact with the cop and began to run away, holding on to his waistband.  The cop yelled at him to stop and started running after him.  As he fled, the defendant threw a plastic bag over a chain link fence onto a sidewalk.  As he tried to climb the fence, the defendant was grabbed by several officers and fell to the ground.  The police recovered the bag thrown over the fence by the defendant, finding 129 small baggies of heroin contained therein.  The defendant was charged with possession with intent to distribute heroin within 100 feet of a park (known as a park zone violation, which carries a mandatory minimum jail sentence in addition to the underlying drug crime).  Following his convictions, the defendant appealed.

The defendant had filed a motion to suppress, arguing the police lacked probable cause or reasonable suspicion to seize him when he exited his car.  A superior court judge denied his motion and the defendant challenged the denial on appeal.  The important question was: when was the defendant seized by the police?  The defendant argued he was seized as soon as the officer said to him, “hey, come here for a second.”  The Commonwealth argued he was not seized until he began to flee and the cop ordered him to stop.  For decades, Massachusetts courts have determined a suspect is seized in the constitutional sense if a reasonable person in his position would not have believed he was free to leave.  In a stark departure, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in this case that the true test regarding seizure is not whether a reasonable person would have felt he was free to leave – instead, the test is whether a police officer has objectively communicated that he (the officer) would use his police power to coerce the suspect to stay.  The SJC correctly reasoned that in nearly all interactions between a cop and a citizen, the citizen would not believe he could simply walk away from the conversation.  Therefore, said the Court, the test should be whether the cop committed an intentional law enforcement act that suggested a compulsion of the suspect to remain on scene, instead of the suspect’s state of mind induced by the mere presence of a police officer.  This is a horrible decision that summarily eliminates decades of caselaw.

Even worse than the new rule announced by the Court is its application to this case.  The Court pointed out there is a difference between an officer asking a question (which invites a response) and an officer giving an order (which is a command).  In this case, the cop said to the defendant, “hey, come here for a second,” which is unquestionably a command.  Even under the SJC’s new seizure analysis invented by this case, the officer’s statement would obviously cause a reasonable person in the defendant’s position to believe the cop would coerce him to stay if he fled (which was borne out when the cop chased the defendant).  Not so, says the SJC.  The first statement by the cop did not constitute a seizure but once the defendant ignored him and started running, he was seized when the cop gave chase and ordered him to stop.  The Court concluded, “[h]ere, the officer’s words, ‘Hey, come here for a second,’ were not what ‘a reasonable person would understand as a command that would be enforced by the police power.'”  It’s hard to imagine a person on the street who is told by a cop to “come here for a second” would think the cop would just allow him to walk away.  This case represents a terrible precedent and a crazy application of the new rule.  The Court’s final conclusion was that the cops had reasonable suspicion based, in part, on the defendant’s flight from the cops.  Therefore, if a seizure had occurred at the moment the cop told the defendant to “come here for a second,” his motion to suppress might very well have been allowed.  However, because the Court said the seizure happened after he began to run, his flight could be considered in the reasonable suspicion analysis which justified the stop.  Accordingly, the drugs were admissible at the defendant’s trial and he was properly convicted of possession with intent to distribute heroin.