When Is a Patfrisk Appropriate in a Suspected Drug Crime Case in Massachusetts?

Commonwealth v. Nichols arose when two police officers trained in drug crimes went undercover to patrol a section of Boston. The officers had received multiple drug-related complaints for that neighborhood, which was already known to the police for its drug activity. The officers saw a man (Kyle Brito) on his cell phone, looking around as if he were being directed to a specific location and waiting for something. The defendant’s car pulled up. Brito looked around and then came up to the car.

Brito reached into the window. Twenty to thirty seconds passed, and then Brito walked away from the car. The officers thought a drug transaction occurred. They saw Brito leave but didn’t see him doing anything suspicious after he left. The officer later testified that he knew neither the defendant nor Brito. He followed Brito on foot, while the other officer followed the defendant’s car in an unmarked police car. The second officer asked a marked cruiser to stop the car and investigate. A third officer stopped the car and, while approaching it, saw the defendant put money into the center console of the car. He reported this to the second officer.

The second officer approached at the same time and asked the defendant to come out of the vehicle to talk. He was read his Miranda rights. The defendant had previously been arrested and said he understood his rights. The second officer asked the defendant about where he’d been and whether he’d met anyone in the last few minutes. The defendant responded and denied he’d met anyone. The officer then asked whether he had weapons or something else he shouldn’t have on him. He then patfrisked the defendant and found a knife. The defendant was cuffed, and the patfrisk continued.

Another officer told the second officer that the defendant’s driver’s license had been suspended. The officer told the defendant this and explained he’d seen the defendant’s earlier meeting with Brito. The defendant said he’d given weed to a friend but received no money for it. The defendant was cuffed, and the officer found a $25 bag of marijuana in his sweatpants, as well as $820. The first officer called and told the second officer he’d seized a bag of marijuana from Brito, who admitted he bought it from the defendant. The officers searched the defendant’s car and found $90 in the center console.

The defendant was charged with distributing marijuana as a subsequent offense, possessing marijuana with intent to distribute, and driving on a suspended license. He moved to suppress and argued that neither the patfrisk nor the order to leave the car was justified. He asked that incriminating items and statements after that be suppressed. The judge granted the motion, and the Commonwealth pursued an appeal.

The appellate court held that the lower court judge had properly found there was reasonable suspicion to believe a drug transaction had occurred, and it was therefore appropriate to stop the defendant’s car. However, it found that the lower court’s ruling that the exit order was unjustified was in error. The appellate court found that the order to leave the vehicle was a reasonable way to ensure the defendant didn’t try to escape before they could question him. It explained that a patfrisk may only be performed if an officer reasonably believes a defendant is armed and dangerous.

The officer’s testimony showed that the defendant was always cooperative and didn’t try to flee. Combined with the officer’s suspicion that only drugs were involved, there weren’t enough facts to justify the officer having a fear of guns or violence. Neither officer had seen an actual exchange or much movement. While the police don’t have to see an object exchange hands, it can be an important part of showing probable cause. However, since the motion judge didn’t make findings about the statements, and the defendant had volunteered various incriminating statements after getting Miranda warnings and not because of the patfrisk, these were admissible.

If you are charged in Massachusetts with a drug crime, contact the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy today to discuss the criminal charges. Call us at 617-367-0450 or contact us through this website.

More Blog Posts:

Assault and Battery Causing Serious Injury in Massachusetts, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published January 14, 2015

Receiving Stolen Property in Massachusetts, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published December 15, 2014

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