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Massachusetts Appeals Court Broadens Scope of Lawful Stop on Vague Description of Suspect

In a recent decision, the Massachusetts Appeals Court appears to have broadened the scope of “reasonable suspicion to stop” a person in circumstances where he did not match the descriptions of the suspect as provided by eyewitnesses.

In the case of Commonweatlh v. Johnson, police responded to several 911 calls of shots fired by multiple shooter in a residential area. One 911 caller reported that the shooters were black and or Spanish, one of which ran towards a nearby park. Another 911 caller reported a shooter as a black male who wore a black jacket, a red bandana, and then ran from the scene (without stating even the general direction of flight).

Police responded to the area of the park within 3-4 minutes after the shooting. They saw a person that appeared to be walking away from the officer near a dark area. The police officer shined his flashlight on the person and saw him to be a black male wearing a grey hoodie pulled tight around his face. The man’s hands were in view by his sides. The officer immediately ordered him to put his hands on his head but the man did not comply. The officer prepared to unholster his weapon, whereupon he was then able to conduct a pat frisk, which revealed the man had a gun in his pocket.

In order to “stop” a person, the police must possess reasonable suspicion, based on specific and articulable facts, that the person stopped had, was or was about to commit a crime. There is an emphasis on “specific and articulable” because they police aren’t permitted to violated just anyone’s constitutional rights on a mere hunch. For that reason, they must base their “reasonable suspicion” on some objective facts. At the moment when the police officer told the defendant to place his hands on his head, the police officer must have had those specific articulable facts for reasonable suspicion to justify the stop.

From these facts, we know that the man did not match the extremely generalized description of the suspects.  The 911 callers reported either a black man or a spanish man – an extremely general description that doesn’t serve to distinguish the defendant from anyone else in the area. He was also wearing a grey hoodie, not a black jacket, nor a red bandana. He was also not “fleeing” at the moment when the officers approached him, he was simply walking away – something he had every right to do.

Although the Appeals Court recognized that the description of the suspect was not sufficient to justify the stop by the police as nothing apparently connected him to the shooting, the court nonetheless upheld the stop because of the circumstances of the seizure. The court noted the lapse of a short period of time between the stop and the gunfight; that it occurred in a residential neighborhood; and because multiple shooters were reported involved and fled in different directions, the circumstances presented a “public safety emergency”. The court further elaborated that the defendant, by having pulled his hoodie tightly around his face and because he was standing in an unlit area, appeared to attempt to conceal himself.

Unfortunately, this decision suggests that very minimal circumstances, even with a lack of any particularized description of suspect(s), police will be justified in stopping just about anyone because of their proximity to the crime scene. This is not a case where the defendant was running away; or by the manner in which he was walking appeared to be in the possession of a gun. By the court’s opinion, the police could have stopped just about anyone and they would have find the seizure lawful. Unfortunately…

Boston Criminal Lawyer Lefteris K. Travayiakis available for consultation on all gun crimes and post-conviction / appeals matters in Massachusetts.

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