Appeals Court Affirms Suppression of Firearm Seized During Warrantless Search of Vehicle

August 25, 2014
By Parker Scheer LLP on August 25, 2014 4:10 PM |

The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently upheld a superior court ruling allowing a motion to suppress a firearm seized after a warrantless search of a backpack following an investigatory stop of a motor vehicle.

In Commonwealth v. Rutledge, two defendants were charged, among other things, with numerous firearms offenses. The arrest was made on July 13, 2011 after a 911 operator in Brockton received a call from a woman who overheard an argument between her current boyfriend and former boyfriend, when the former boyfriend allegedly pulled a gun on the current boyfriend, threatening to kill him.

When police did not find the former boyfriend at the scene of the alleged altercation, the police initiated a general broadcast advising officers to look out for the make and model vehicle the suspect was known to drive. Officers were also advised that the suspect had brandished a gun and had made threats with it. An officer spotted the vehicle and observed its occupants "making furtive movements." When the officer stopped the vehicle, the original suspect and the front passenger exited the vehicle, despite the officer's instruction that they remain inside. When the officer approached with his firearm drawn, the two men fled the scene. A third passenger remained in the vehicle throughout the altercation.

Officers secured the scene and performed a search of the vehicle, looking for a firearm. They discovered a backpack on the right rear seat and opened it, finding a firearm and other items inside.

Both defendants (the original suspect and the passenger who fled the scene) moved to suppress the firearm, arguing that the police seized it during a warrantless search of the vehicle and the backpack. A superior court judge agreed, ruling that the officers were first required to perform a preliminary pat-frisk of the backpack before executing a search. The Commonwealth appealed.

A "Terry Stop" is when police briefly detain a person to investigate him or her when the police have a reasonable suspicion of the person's involvement in criminal activity, but do not necessarily have probable cause to arrest that person. During a Terry Stop, police may take protective measures to confirm or dispel their reasonable suspicions that the stopped person may have a weapon. However, these measures are limited to what is "minimally necessary to learn whether the suspect is armed and to disarm him once the weapon is discovered."

In some situations, particular features of a container (like a backpack) may make it obvious that nothing short of actually opening the container will suffice to address the officer's suspicions that a dangerous weapon is inside. Here, however, the Appeals Court noted that the officers did not take any less-invasive measures to determine whether the backpack contained a weapon. For example, the officers did not testify that they performed a pat-frisk of the backpack to feel its possible contents, or that they attempted to estimate the weight of the backpack, or anything else that would have suggested that a preliminary pat-frisk of the backpack would have been useless, as the Commonwealth argued.

The Commonwealth also argued that an exigent circumstance existed in this case, but the Court decided that was too speculative. The Appeals Court pointed out that the officers at the scene were not deprived of the opportunity to perform the preliminary pat-frisk of the backpack. The suspects had fled the scene and the remaining passenger had been subdued. Accordingly, there was no immediate threat to the officers, who were able to control the container and keep it away from any suspects who might have retrieved a weapon from it.