The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld illegal-weapons convictions against a college student found walking around campus with a loaded gun in his backpack after a security guard spotted live rounds and a hunting knife in the console of his Jeep - which was festooned with stickers reading "Kill 'Em All Let God Sort It Out" and "Sniper No Need to Run--You'll Only Die Tired."
Jason Whitehead, at the time a student at Cape Cod Community College, argued that his convictions for carrying a firearm without a license and carrying a firearm on school grounds should be tossed because a Barnstable police officer searched his backpack without a warrant after not finding a gun during a pat frisk - and after he voluntarily produced an FID card for the three rounds of ammunition.
In its ruling, however, the appeals court said the 2012 backpack search was permissible under a Supreme Court ruling that lets police conduct emergency searches to protect themselves or the public.
The court noted the openly viewable rounds and the stickers alone were enough to give security guards and police concern a gunman might be wandering around campus. Whitehead's camo outfit and "aggressive" posture when he walked towards his Jeep when he noticed men with uniforms near it did nothing to reduce the tension:
First, regardless whether the defendant possessed an FID card, there were sufficient articulable facts to create a reasonable suspicion for the patfrisk and search of the backpack. In the wake of school shootings such as occurred at Columbine, Colorado; Santee, California; and Newtown, Connecticut, "we take judicial notice of the actual and potential violence in ... schools," Commonwealth v. Milo M., 433 Mass. 149, 156 (2001), and note the heightened sensitivity of school officials to signs that a student may have brought guns onto school property and might embark on a shooting rampage. See generally G.S. Katzmann (ed.), Securing Our Children's Future: New Approaches to Juvenile Justice and Youth Violence 1-27, 386-414 (2002). The officer observed the presence of three types of ammunition and a hunting knife openly displayed in the defendant's vehicle, the defendant's aggressive posture, his camouflage attire, and the threatening decals on his vehicle. When taken in combination, these facts justify a frisk of both the defendant's person and backpack because a reasonable person in the officer's position would fear for his own safety and that of others on a college campus. Indeed, the presence of ammunition alone gave rise to a reasonable inference that a firearm was also present. ... Based on the presence of the ammunition and the reasonable inference that a gun might be nearby, it was reasonable for Officer Donovan to suspect that his safety and the safety of others at the college were in danger.
The court continues:
The same factors justifying the patfrisk of the defendant's person justified a patdown of the backpack he carried. A rule prohibiting the search of the bag would allow the defendant to leave the scene with a weapon that could be used against the officer as soon as the defendant regained possession of the bag.
Plus, the fact that he was on school grounds gave the officer more of a reason to search - since Massachusetts bans possession of guns or ammo on school or college grounds without permission of school officials, which Whitehead didn't have, the court said.
Finally, as Officer Donovan testified and as the motion judge found, he read the defendant the Miranda rights after he pat frisked him for weapons. As has been noted, after he removed the backpack from the defendant and advised him that he was going to pat frisk it, the defendant suddenly said, "Wait, there is a loaded gun in there." The defendant's admission to having a loaded gun inside his backpack on a college campus prior to the officer's search quite obviously confirmed the validity of the officer's concern for his own safety and the safety of the college community.
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