The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed a superior court judge’s allowance of a defendant’s motion to suppress a gun found in his car, which will allow the prosecution of the defendant to continue to trial. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Edwards.
During the early morning hours of St. Patrick’s Day in 2013, a man called 911 to report the defendant was standing on Armandine Street in Dorchester holding a gun. The caller identified himself and the defendant by name and said the defendant was not threatening anybody. The caller said he saw the defendant drive away and then return and park on the side of the road. A Boston police officer responded to the report issued by dispatch and drove to Armandine Street. The 911 caller ran off his porch toward the officer’s cruiser and pointed to the car the defendant had entered (which was lawfully parked next to the curb). At that moment, the brake lights on the defendant’s car illuminated and the officer activated his cruiser lights and parked next to the defendant’s car to prevent it from leaving. The defendant got out of his car and began to walk away. The cop ordered him to stop, but the defendant continued to walk. The cop then tackled the defendant and handcuffed him. Meanwhile, a second officer had arrived on the scene and looked into the defendant’s car. Lying on the floor of the driver’s seat was a gun. The defendant did not have a license to carry the gun and was indicted.
The defendant filed a motion to suppress the gun, arguing the police lacked reasonable suspicion to stop him (and block his car from leaving). A superior court judge conducted a hearing and agreed the stop was unconstitutional. The judge pointed out it is not illegal to carry a gun in public – it only becomes illegal if the carrier does not have a license. Accordingly, the police did not have the authority to stop and seize the defendant and his car.
The Supreme Judicial Court reversed. While stating this is an “exceedingly close case” the Court concluded the prosecutor had proven (by the “very narrowest of margins”) the cop had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant. The SJC agreed with the superior court judge that it is not illegal for a person to hold a gun in public, even if the gun is not holstered. The Court said there were additional facts in this case that supported a finding of reasonable suspicion that the defendant was involved in criminal activity: the defendant’s conduct itself (driving away and then returning to the same street; standing on the street while holding the gun; and then sitting alone in the car with the lights off); the late hour (1:30 a.m.); the location (a neighborhood near where there had been crimes of violence); and the police officer’s testimony that a trained, licensed gun owner would use a holster. Based on all these facts, the officer had reasonable suspicion that the defendant was involved in criminal activity and was warranted in detaining him to pat-frisk him. Because the discovery of the gun was made during lawful police conduct, its suppression was error.
If the Court’s reasoning seems flimsy, it’s because it is. In Massachusetts, carrying a gun in public is not a crime and police officers theoretically cannot stop someone carrying a gun to further investigate. In practice, there are very few police officers who would not stop a person carrying a gun on a public street to investigate whether the person is legally licensed to carry the gun. In this case, the SJC appears to be searching for a reason to justify the police officer’s conduct toward an individual who – on the surface – did not appear to be breaking the law. The case will now be remanded to the superior court for trial.