The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday threw out the gun conviction of a man who'd been stopped for failing to signal a left turn and running a red light on Quincy Street in Roxbury in 2009.
The court ruled that while Boston Police officers had the right to order Jeromie Johnson - who already had two convictions for illegal weapons possession - out of the car after the stop in the "high crime area," they didn't have enough reason to conduct a "protective sweep" of the car, during which they found a loaded gun wrapped in a sock that was covered with a towel in the back seat. Police are allowed to conduct searches without a warrant in situations where they fear the person they've stopped might have quick access to a weapon.
The justices acknowledged the fact that Johnson "had an outstanding arrest warrant, was slow to obey the officers' commands, argued with them, and repeatedly looked into the rear of the car," and that the stop was in an area known for its crime, makes their call a close one, but that:
[Johnson and his passenger] kept their hands in sight of the officers. ... They made no furtive gestures suggesting that they might be reaching for or hiding weapons. ... The defendant's glances into the back of the car were ambiguous and not the equivalent of movements suggesting an attempt to conceal a weapon. ... Furthermore, when the patfrisk of the automobile was performed, the defendant was outside the car, under the watchful eyes of another officer. Finally, the officers outnumbered the occupants of the car.
Also, Johnson's outstanding warrant was for speeding and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, rather than anything related to guns or violence, the court noted.
Since the search was illegal and since without the search the police never would have found the hidden gun, the gun should not have been presented as evidence against Johnston, the court ruled.
A protective sweep of an automobile for weapons must be based on reasonable fears for the safety of officers or others. The officers here had no reasonable concern based on specific, articulable facts that there might be weapons in the vehicle. Therefore, the firearm and other evidence resulting from the search (including the defendant's statements) should have been suppressed. Without the firearm or the defendant's statements, there was insufficient evidence to convict the defendant. Judgment shall therefore enter in his favor.