The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday reversed a Suffolk Superior Court judge’s decision to suppress a gun found by Boston police officers during a motor vehicle stop. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Douglas.
Boston cops were conducting surveillance near a party being held at a Boston nightclub in April of 2011. The party attendees had been involved in prior acts of violence. As they left the club, some people were stopped by the police while others were followed by the police as they drove to a restaurant in Chinatown. At around 3:00 a.m., the police saw four individuals, including the defendant, get into a car in the restaurant’s parking lot. The defendant, who was known to have a criminal record including at least one conviction for possessing a gun, got into the front passenger’s seat. Another man was holding his hands close to his body near the front pocket of the hoodie he was wearing. As she left the parking lot, the driver did not use her signal and the police stopped the car.
Two officers approached the car and interacted with the back seat passengers. One of the back seat passengers was leaning toward the middle of the car and the other was staring straight ahead with at least one of his hands in the front pocket of his hoodie. Finding the behavior of both backseat passengers troubling, the police ordered them to exit the vehicle. The officers patfrisked them and did not find any contraband. Meanwhile, the defendant got out of the car on his own to talk to the cops. They ordered him to get back in his seat, which he did. However, the defendant then moved the gear shift into “drive.” The car didn’t move because the driver had her foot on the brake pedal. The cops ordered the defendant to put the car back into “park” and the defendant complied. The driver and the defendant were ordered out of the car. The defendant was patfrisked and no contraband was found on his body. The cops then searched the passenger compartment and found a gun under the front passenger seat. The defendant and one of the backseat passengers were charged with its unlawful possession.
The defendant filed a motion to suppress the gun, arguing that it resulted from an illegal search by the police. A superior court judge agreed, ruling that even if the cops had a right to patfrisk the backseat passengers, when they did not find any contraband they were not entitled to continue their search. The Appeals Court reversed, holding that the search was constitutional.
The Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the Appeals Court that the police conduct did not violate the defendant’s constitutional rights. The Court first noted that it was appropriate for the police to stop the car because of the motor vehicle infraction (the failure to signal). A police officer may order an occupant of a lawfully-stopped car to exit only if the officer has a reasonable belief that the individual is a danger to somebody’s safety. The Court said that even if the cops in this case did have a reasonable belief that the backseat passengers were dangerous, their fears should have been eliminated when no weapons were found during the patfrisks of the backseat passengers. However, according to the Court, the defendant’s erratic behavior – first in getting out of the car and then by putting the car into drive – created reasonable suspicion that the defendant had a weapon. It was therefore appropriate for the cops to conduct a protective sweep of the car to ensure there were no weapons that could be used against them.
This case represents a perfect example of how not to interact with the police. If the defendant had simply sat in his seat and kept his mouth shut, the officers would not have been permitted to search the vehicle. By way of his strange behavior, the defendant gave the police a reason to look under his seat and as a result, he is charged with a crime that carries a mandatory minimum jail sentence.