Scope of Permissible Search and Seizure in Massachusetts

In Commonwealth v. Romero, the court considered an interlocutory appeal of an order denying the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence seized and statements made after a warrantless search of a parked car that was registered in his name. At the suppression hearing, the police officers testified that five individuals, including the defendant, were gathered and drinking from open alcohol containers in a parking lot on the night in question. One of the individuals crouched behind a parked car. There were no trespassing and no parking signs posted, and the lot was dim.

The officer pat frisked the person crouching by the parked car and found nothing. The officer told him to go back to the group. The officer searched for 30-45 seconds and, finding nothing, returned to the other officers. The officers learned that none of the group lived in the area, and the defendant was previously arrested for armed robbery and might have had a knife on him. However, when he was pat frisked, no weapons were found.

An officer noticed that the side windows of a Dodge Caravan parked in front of the officer’s car were opened partway, and there was a fanny pack and jacket on the floor behind the driver’s seat. The officer thought there might be valuables in the car, and he asked if anyone owned the car or knew the owner. Nobody responded. The officer was worried for the officers’ safety and opened the Caravan’s door. He looked in the glove box, and when he frisked the fanny pack he found a loaded firearm.

Meanwhile, a second officer talked to the group of men. He knew one man from a prior drug arrest. The second officer observed that the demeanor of the group changed once the officer began investigating the Caravan. One of the men told the defendant to go in Spanish. The defendant tried to leave, saying he had to use the bathroom. After the firearm was found, other officers arrived. The defendant and four others were put in custody. An officer learned that the Caravan was registered to the defendant. The defendant was pat frisked, and a white powdery material was found inside a dollar bill in his pocket. He didn’t have a license to carry a firearm.

At the suppression hearing, the judge ruled that the officers’ observations gave them reasonable suspicion to believe a crime was being committed, and this provided probable cause to search the Caravan and the group members. The appellate court explained that a consensual street encounter may include a pat frisk only if the officer has a reasonable suspicion based on articulable facts and inferences that the individual is engaged in a crime and that he’s armed and dangerous.

The court found the initial stop, inquiry, and pat frisk were permissible because the group was in a high crime area possibly drinking alcohol out of open containers. The defendant admitted to his past arrest and possessing a knife. An officer knew one of the men. However, the court explained that the scope of the search needs to be strictly tied to and justified by the circumstances that made it permissible to start searching.

The appellate court found that the officer’s extension of a protective sweep to the Caravan exceeded the permitted scope of the initial search. No weapons had been found on the group, and it did not appear that they were committing any crimes. The officers acted on a hunch, since the group had denied any links to the Caravan. The court concluded the search was illegal, and therefore the firearm and the other evidence gathered, including the defendant’s statement about not having a firearm license, had to be suppressed. The trial court’s order was reversed.

If you are charged with a firearms offense in Massachusetts, 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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