In an important decision issued earlier this week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled a Boston cop’s testimony that a car was traveling “at a speed greater than reasonable,” without more, was insufficient to justify stopping the car. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Teixeira-Furtado.
The defendant was charged with carrying a gun following his interaction with Boston cops on the evening of November 23, 2012. Officers assigned to the department’s youth violent strike force saw a Honda Accord driving in a residential area at a speed the officers determined was “greater than reasonable.” The cops activated their emergency lights and gave chase to the Accord. The Accord continued to travel about a block before slowing down. As the car was still moving, the defendant jumped out of the front passenger side. He looked around, approached the cops, turned back, and grabbed his waist area. The cops chased down the defendant, who admitted to possessing a gun in his waistband.
The defendant filed a motion to suppress the gun, arguing the police were unjustified in stopping the car. During a hearing in the Boston Municipal Court, one of the officers testified that the car was traveling at a speed greater than reasonable, but offered no other facts in support. There is a Massachusetts statute that authorizes the police to stop a car that is driving at a speed greater than reasonable, but the BMC judge said the cop’s conclusory and subjective opinion about the Accord’s speed was insufficient. The judge said it was necessary for the officer to testify about specific, articulable facts supporting his opinion regarding the speed of the car. The Appeals Court reversed and the Supreme Judicial Court agreed to hear the case.
The SJC agreed with the Boston Municipal Court judge that the gun taken from the defendant must be suppressed. The SJC noted that the officer’s testimony at the suppression hearing was consistent with the language of the statute. However, according to the Court, the officer’s impression could not be evaluated because he did not offer specific facts in support. The Court noted that the Commonwealth was not required to establish the Accord’s precise speed. However, the officer could have done any of the following to support his conclusion: estimate the car’s speed; compare the car’s speed to that of other vehicles on the road; or offer evidence about the car’s relationship to other cars or pedestrians to establish it was not being operated at a safe speed. Because the BMC judge could not fairly judge the cop’s testimony that the Accord was being driven at an unsafe speed, the defendant’s motion to suppress was properly allowed.
This is a really important case. Too often, judges hearing motions to suppress are overly solicitous of police officers’ opinions. It is relatively rare to see a judge demand that an officer present more than boilerplate language to justify the stop and seizure of a defendant. This case should send a message to police officers and prosecutors that they will need to present objective facts in court to justify the detention of defendants.