Court: Odd placement of car radio panel, not car's location in dangerous part of Dorchester, made man's arrest valid

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today overruled a lower-court judge and said prosecutors could use a loaded gun found in a space behind a car dashboard during a Dorchester traffic stop as evidence against the man charged with its illegal possession.

Ishmal Haynes was arrested on Nov. 8, 2009 in "a high crime area of the Dorchester section of Boston" after a state trooper and two Boston police officers spotted him making "several traffic violations" and a search of his car showed he'd stashed a loaded gun in a space behind the dashboard of his rented car.

The judge in his case threw out the gun as evidence, saying that while the officers had reason to order him from his car for the traffic infractions, the fact that he was in a high-crime area was not reason enough to conduct what is known as a Terry search - a search without a warrant when the officers fear a person could have quick access to a weapon.

The appeals court, however, ruled that, in this case, the nature of the neighborhood alone was not what made the search permissible, and that other factors gave the officers the right to conduct a search of the car for a possible weapon.

After he was asked for his registration, the court said, Haynes made several odd movements, including opening and then closing the glove compartment and moving one arm to his side - which Haynes said meant he was just reaching for a tissue, not doing anything suspicious. But then, the court continued, the state trooper noticed the radio panel was slightly ajar and not flush with the rest of the dashboard, which his training has taught him often means there is a hidden compartment.

During the search, Trooper Foley noticed that the plastic panel around the radio on the front console was slightly ajar in the bottom right area of the radio, and that the panel was not seated properly against the main part of the console. Based on his experience and training that voids behind vehicle panels are often used to hide guns or illegal drugs, Trooper Foley put his fingers under the edge of the panel and effortlessly pulled it out. The panel came out easily, with no damage to the car. In that space, Trooper Foley saw a handgun.

The court continued:

Here, the search of the automobile was within the scope of a permissible protective search because the proximity of the radio panel to the defendant upon his release would allow him easy access to it. ... That the defendant was "detained" outside the car at the time of the search is of no import in this case, as he would have been allowed to reenter the motor vehicle once nothing illegal was found on his person. ...

Trooper Foley saw that the panel housing the radio was "slightly ajar" and "knew from his experience and training" that the panel "was not seated properly against the main part of the console." Given his specialized training in detecting "hides" in natural voids contained in motor vehicles, the officer was not required to put that training aside and allow the defendant to return to the motor vehicle, where a gun would potentially be readily accessible. The officers' concerns for their own safety, as well as that of the public, were reasonably related to the scope of the search.

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Comments

Reasonable

It seems like a reasonable decision, though as someone who likes to tinker with car electronics I'm sure plenty of spaces in my former car would look "suspicious". I would be upset if that caused me to be searched though I'm not sure it counts as violation of civil rights for the reasons listed.

I do want to thank Adam for his reporting on these court matters. It's really appreciated! The other media outlets fail to report important decisions like this or when they do it's in poorly written articles which leave out most of the facts and details. It's stuff like this that keeps me coming to the site frequently. This sort of journalism is surprisingly rare yet important.

Terry stop

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This concept is really interesting in Boston, since areas of Boston are so geographically tiny. I can pretty much tell you where the heavy drug and gang activity is, but then you can go one street over and you have nicely maintained homes and civic-minded neighbors. There just aren't areas of Boston where there's a high likelihood that someone driving down that street is involved in criminal activity, because we don't have those areas like many cities do where several square blocks is nothing but run-down properties and slumlords. The splattered street layout also makes it so it's perfectly reasonable for anyone to be driving or walking down pretty much any street to get somewhere.

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You don't get to search

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You don't get to search someone just because they're in a high crime area. Read Terry v. Ohio and you'll see that a reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal design is required for a stop, and that same reasonableness is applied to a frisk for weapons. It's not probable cause, it's something less. But it's something nonetheless.
If violent crime or drug distribution occurs one block over, and an individual is engaged in activity that triggers scrutiny from a trained and experienced officer who recognizes it to be consistent with criminal activity, that person is subject to a stop and, likely, a pat frisk. Without reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is occurring or that an individual is armed, however, mere presence of someone in or near a "high crime area" never subjects that person to a Terry stop and frisk.

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Yep

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And the trial judge dismissed the evidence because that seemed to be the only reason the cops did the search. The appeals court, however, ruled that the officers in fact did have other reasons - the guy's odd movements and the less-than-perfect alignment of the radio panel. Read the opinion and you'll see how they felt those alone would have justified the additional search, even without the specific location in which the traffic violations occurred.

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