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.