The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today overturned the conviction of a young man who was found guilty of firearms offenses, ruling the police lacked constitutional authority to stop and search him. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Meneus.
On the night of April 29, 2006, a motorist reported to the police that her car was hit by a gunshot as she drove along a street in Cambridge. Officers from the Cambridge Police Department responded and spoke to the driver, who said a group of young black males ran into a nearby housing complex following the gunshot. The cops then noticed five or six young black males who were standing close to the entrance of the housing complex and near where the gunshot had allegedly been fired. The officers approached the group and asked if anyone had information about a gunshot. None of the young men responded affirmatively. The cops then decided they wanted to pat frisk the men for “officer safety.” Some of the men reluctantly submitted to being frisked, but the defendant began to walk away. As the cops pursued him, the defendant started running. The officers followed him into the housing complex and eventually tackled him. Underneath the defendant’s body, the police found a gun. He was arrested and charged with multiple firearms offenses. Once in court, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the gun, arguing the police lacked authority to stop him and seize the gun. A Cambridge District Court judge denied the motion and another judge then found the defendant guilty in a jury-waived trial. The defendant appealed and the Appeals Court affirmed the conviction. On further appellate review, the Supreme Judicial Court reversed.
The sole question on appeal was whether the cops had the right to stop the defendant and pat frisk him as he tried to walk away. In Massachusetts, a police officer is entitled to stop and frisk an individual when there is reasonable suspicion to believe the individual has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard of proof than probable cause. The district court judge concluded the police had reasonable suspicion based on several factors including: (1) the defendant was with a group of young black men as described by the driver; (2) the alleged shooting happened in a high-crime area of Cambridge; (3) a gun crime posed an imminent threat to the safety of the public; (4) the defendant was found close to the original crime; (5) the defendant ran away; and (6) the officers’ safety was at risk. The SJC rejected the district court judge’s justification for the stop. First, the description of potential perpetrators couldn’t have been more vague. “Young black males” does not provide adequate identifying details to justify the police in stopping and frisking any young black man who might be in the area. While the nature of the neighborhood (being “high-crime”) and the crime (being a gun offense) were proper considerations in the reasonable suspicion analysis, they did not tip the scales in this case to justify the stop. There was no information the defendant was part of the group of young men that was seen running from the scene by the driver. It was the defendant’s absolute right to refuse to consent to a pat frisk, and his walking (and then running) away from the cops did not suggest criminal activity. Finally, the facts known at the time did not allow the cops to reasonably conclude a pat frisk of the defendant was needed to ensure their safety.
The SJC remanded the case back to Cambridge District Court for a new trial, but with the gun now being suppressed, it is likely the Commonwealth will be forced to dismiss the case.