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.