MA Appeals Court Reiterates Protections Against Unjustified Searches in an Automobile Stop

Commonwealth v. Johnson, No. 11-P-1324, MA Appeals Court (August 16, 2012)

By Wassem Amin

On August 16, 2012, The Massachusetts Appeals Court reiterated its strict interpretation of constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. In Commonwealth v. Johnson, the contested search was a protective sweep of an automobile. A protective sweep or “patfrisk” of a vehicle is a search of the passenger and driver areas for weapons. To be valid, it must be justified by the officer’s reasonable belief that his own safety or that of others is in danger. Requiring more than just a hunch, such a belief must be based on reasonable and articulable facts.

The key to successfully contesting a search is to establish that all the facts taken together-prior to the arrest-were insufficient to meet the “reasonable belief” standard. In this case, there were two defendants, a male driver and a female passenger. The female passenger was also the owner of the vehicle. After issuing an exit order for both defendants and performing a protective sweep, police found a weapon concealed in the rear seat of the vehicle. When confronted with the weapon, the driver acknowledged that he did not have a license for it.

The defendants contested the search, arguing that the officers were not justified in performing the protective sweep. The Commonwealth argued that several facts existed that met this reasonable belief standard: (1) The driver had an outstanding warrant; (2) both the driver and the passenger-owner exhibited nervous behavior; (3) The driver repeatedly looked in the back seat of the vehicle; (4) the passenger-owner avoided eye contact with the officers; (5) the driver was argumentative and was slow to obey the officer’s commands; and (6) the stop was in a high-crime area in Boston.

However, although the Court acknowledged that it was a close case, it nonetheless held that the search was unreasonable – and therefore illegal. In other words, all these facts taken together did not establish a reasonable belief that the officer’s safety may be compromised. The officers had no specific, articulable information that either occupant had a history of weapon possessions or violent crimes. The Court stressed that, although the driver had an outstanding warrant, it was for a nonviolent motor vehicle offense. In addressing the defendants’ nervous behavior, the Court reiterated that “nervous or anxious behavior in combination with factors that add nothing to the equation will not support a reasonable suspicion that an officer’s safety may be compromised.”

“The officers here had no reasonable concern based on specific, articulable facts that there might be weapons in the vehicle. Therefore, the firearms and other evidence from the search (including the defendant’s statements) should have been suppressed.”

Implications

The Commonwealth continues to strictly construe an automobile search, more so than many other states or in the federal criminal context. Contesting a search is a very factually-specific inquiry and is different in every case. The timing of the facts which gave rise to the search, as well as the sufficiency and number thereof, are determinative in successfully suppressing evidence seized from the contested search. It is therefore critical that a defendant seek the advice of a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney to determine whether the search was illegal or not.

Disclaimer. The above post is for informative purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. If you would like more information or to speak with a Criminal Defense Attorney, please call (617) 880-6155 or visit Dhar Law LLP.

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