Court: Vague description of a bunch of guys seen after gunfire not enough reason to pat frisk a bunch of guys standing nearby

The Supreme Judicial Court today overturned a Cambridge man's gun convictions because police had no legal reason to frisk him after a woman reported seeing a group of young men fleeing following a bullet hitting her car one night in 2006.

In its decision, the state's highest court said that the woman provided only a vague description of young black men running into Washington Elms housing project and that arriving Cambridge officers had no proof the group of young men they found standing on a nearby corner might be connected to the gunfire.

Other than the race and age of the group seen running into the housing complex, the police had none of the usual descriptive information such as distinctive clothing, facial features, hairstyles, skin tone, height, weight, or other physical characteristics that would have permitted them to reasonably and rationally narrow the universe of possible suspects.

Because of that, the court said, McGregory Meneus was within his right to refuse the pat frisk an officer wanted to conduct and even to run away rather than comply. And that, the court ruled, made the gun an officer found under Meneus after catching up with him and "assisting him to the ground" illegal evidence. Since there was no case against Meneus without the gun, the court dismissed the charges.

To come to that conclusion, the court first had to consider when Meneus was "seized" by police. The Middlesex County District Attorney's office argued that that did not occur until after Meneus began to run and refused a police order to stop and that therefore officers had a legitimate reason to stop him since the flight indicated he might be a risk to officer or the public's safety.

But the court ruled that in Massachusetts, a citizen has a right to refuse to talk to a police officer, even to walk or run away, before he is "seized."

The seizure occurred when Officer Porter began to pursue the defendant to prevent his avoidance of the patfrisk that already had begun with the other members of the group, not later in the encounter when the police commanded the defendant to stop. Therefore, the issue of flight as a factor in reasonable suspicion is focused on defendant's action in backing away to avoid a patfrisk to which he did not consent. In the absence of constitutional justification for a threshold inquiry, "our law guards a person's freedom to speak or not to speak to a police officer. A person also may choose to walk away [or run away], avoiding altogether any contact with police." Warren, 475 Mass. at 538 ...

Prosecutors also argued that another factor in going after Meneus was the fact police considered the area one of "high crime." The court acknowledged that being in a high-crime area is one possible factor in frisking somebody, but said that in the absence of other factors, it can't be used, because plenty of law-abiding citizens live in high-crime areas and they are as deserving of constitutional rights as everybody else.

Two years after this arrest, Meneus was charged with shooting somebody in the shoulder after allegedly being refused entry to a party.

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    Comments

    Ta da!

    By on

    Two years after this arrest, Meneus was charged with shooting somebody in the shoulder after allegedly being refused entry to a party.

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    Voting is closed. 27

    Thankfully

    By on

    Minority Report is fiction and we do not practice preventative justice. This was a bad stop and the police cannot be allowed to benefit from clear constitutional violations. This is the second ruling from the State Supremes in as many years reinforcing the right of citizens to ignore, walk or run from police when they are being harassed.

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    Voting is closed. 29

    Yeah, I'm sure ignoring or

    By on

    Yeah, I'm sure ignoring or running away from the police will go just fine as a result of this decision.

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    Voting is closed. 9

    And if it doesn't, in the

    By on

    And if it doesn't, in the future you'll see repeats of this decision along with damages awarded to victims of such police abuse. Maybe then the police will learn they have to deal with stuff like this, so it will "go just fine."

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    Voting is closed. 0

    Doesn't really matter

    By on

    He's obviously not a great guy, and probably was guilty of the initial crime, but thankfully this is America and we have rules and laws that must be followed. I'm of the mindset it's better to let 10 guilty men go than convict one innocent person.

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    Voting is closed. 23

    Great news for muggers and other criminals

    By on

    All you have to do is wear a hoodie and a ski mask and then ditch them a block away from the scene of the crime. Even if the police catch you red-handed with the victims wallet in the location the victim says you fled to, they can't convict you because it's an illegal search based on a vague description.

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    Voting is closed. 8

    Nopers

    By on

    Clothing can be used as part of an identification that leads to somebody being detained and searched. In fact, in this particular case, that might have made the arrest and conviction constitutional:

    The court noted that when he ran away, the woman whose car got shot actually grabbed the guy by the jacket and managed to slow him down long enough for the cops to catch up with him (and then she stayed at the scene while the cops found the gun and arrested him). The jacket was, the court said, a distinctive one: "A black bomber jacket with a visibly distinctive orange lining." Yet at no point before she stopped the guy did the victim say anything to police about the jacket. Perhaps if she had seen it and said something, that, combined with the other factors (being in a high-crime area, for example), might have made a difference, because police would have had more than a suspicion that this guy was, in fact, a gunman.

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    Voting is closed. 7

    2 YRS AFTER

    By on

    IT'S JUST BEEN DECIDED NOW?

    WHERE HAS HE BEEN FOR TWO YEARS.

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    Ten+ years, actually

    By on

    The original arrest was in 2006; the two years refers to the time between that and the other arrest (which was not subject to this decision). Yep, the wheels of justice grind slow sometimes.

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    Voting is closed. 8

    gee golly

    i cant imagine anybody in their right mind fleeing the sound of gunshots

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    Interesting case

    By on

    So if a police officer gets a call about gunshots and he believes that a person has a gun on him and he approaches that individual and tries to search him that person can tell the officer to F***k off and take off. Makes sense to me!

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    Voting is closed. 14

    And how does he come to believe the guy has a gun?

    By on

    Sorry, hunches are unconstitutional reasons to frisk somebody. You need some proof. The court wasn't breaking new legal ground here - cops have needed "probable cause" for a long time now. As a substitute, a cop can also act if he believes his or the public's safety is at immediate risk. Is the guy running at (or away) from the cop while grabbing his waist (criminals NEVER wear holsters)? Is he breathing heavily and sweating on a cold winter night on a corner known for violent crime? The courts are fairly lenient with what proof a cop or prosecutor has to provide for this, but it has to be something beyond just standing there.

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    Voting is closed. 21

    The cops didn't need probable

    The cops didn't need probable cause to stop just reasonable suspicion.

    The result of this decision is that more scrutiny will be on police for a stop and more guns and criminals will remain on the street and get to shoot and harm more people.

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    Voting is closed. 17

    And in this case, they didn't

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    And in this case, they didn't even have reasonable suspicion.

    Being young and black and simply in the wrong neighborhood is about as far from "reasonable" suspicion you can get.

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    There are techniques police are taught

    By on

    There is a whole method of observing behavior that can help police determine if someone is carrying a gun. If the officers had cited any of these, the arrest likely would have been allowed.

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    Voting is closed. 10

    Unless you're being detained

    By on

    Unless you're being detained or arrested, you are always free to go.

    The wise thing to do is explicitly ask, "Am I being detained?" and if the answer is no, shut up, turn around, and leave -- but that doesn't mean you have to.

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    Voting is closed. 1