The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that prosecutors in Springfield can't use a knife found on a guy during a traffic stop - and the gun then found in his car - as evidence against him because police didn't have enough proof he was "armed and dangerous" before they frisked him.
In the ruling, in which the state's highest court said it had previously erred in coming up with two possibly differing rationales for allowing certain pat-frisk searches, justices said pat frisking requires a higher level of proof than an order to somebody to get out of their car.
The ruling comes in the case of a man whom police pulled over in 2017 for having a cracked windshield and an expired inspection sticker. After he stopped, and as officers were approaching the car, the man got out, without being asked, stood in front of the driver's side door and, as officers talked to him, made several glances into the car.
Police found his quick exit suspicious enough to handcuff and then frisk him, according to the court's summary of the incident. They found a knife on him and then, after asking him if he had any other weapons and he said yes, they found a gun in his car. They then charged him with a number of weapons counts.
The court ruled that pulling the man over for safety violations was legal and that they might have had a reason to order him out of the car, had he not gotten out first - because state and federal law allows that:
[I]n the absence of reasonable suspicion of a crime or justification to search the vehicle on other grounds, an exit order is justified during a traffic stop if officers have a reasonable suspicion of a threat to safety.
But searching a person by frisking them invokes Constitutional protections and so requires a higher standard: That officers need "a reasonable suspicion" the man was "armed and dangerous," the court said. In this case, at the point at which the officers handcuffed and then patted down the man, they did not have any proof of that, the court said.
Although not furtive, we acknowledge that the police may have found the defendant's behavior unexpected. Nevertheless, surprise in response to unexpected behavior is not the same as suspicion that the person is armed and dangerous. ...
Here, the defendant's actions, without more, did not justify a patfrisk because they did not establish reasonable suspicion that the defendant was armed and dangerous. ...
The fact that the defendant turned to look into the front seat of his vehicle more than once after he got out adds little if anything to the analysis. At most, such action would suggest that the defendant had something of interest in his vehicle, not that he had a weapon on his person.
The court continued that it disagreed with a contention by prosecutors that the fact that everything in the stop happened so quickly shows the officers were right to frisk the man:
[T]he defendant's actions did not indicate that he was armed and dangerous. He made no furtive movements; he already had gotten out of his vehicle and could not use it as a weapon; his body was fully visible to the officers; he was fully compliant with all commands issued by the officers; and he was outnumbered. Thus, the fact that the events, such as they were, unfolded quickly does not create a reasonable suspicion that the defendant was armed and dangerous.
And if the pat frisk was illegal, then so was the car search, which was based on evidence gained during the pat frisk, the court concluded.