Recent Decision by the MA Supreme Judicial Court Puts an End to Baseless Stop & Frisks

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Massachusetts’ highest court recently issued an important decision, holding that police can no longer frisk drivers for “officer safety” during traffic stops unless they have independent information that the driver is potentially armed. 

The case, Commonwealth v. Torres-Pagan, arises from a 2017 traffic stop in Springfield, Massachusetts. Torres-Pagan was stopped by Springfield Police, ordered out of his vehicle, handcuffed and frisked outside his car on the claim of “officer safety.” The Springfield police located a legal knife on Torres-Pagan and then after searching his vehicle, allegedly found an illegal firearm. 

The Court has suppressed the gun evidence against Torres-Pagan, ruling that “[a]lthough the defendant properly was stopped for motor vehicle violations, the subsequent pat frisk of his person and search of his vehicle were unconstitutional.” 

Justice Kimberly S. Budd wrote the unanimous decision, stating: 

“[T]o justify a pat frisk, an officer needs more than safety concerns ….” 

“The only legitimate reason for an officer to subject a suspect to a pat frisk is to determine whether he or she has concealed weapons on his or her person. We therefore do not allow such an intrusion absent reasonable suspicion that the suspect is dangerous and has a weapon.” (internal citations omitted). 

The Court also used its decision to clarify the legal standard for ordering someone out of their vehicle, a so-called “exit order.” The decision holds that “an exit order is justified during a traffic stop where:

  1. police are warranted in the belief that the safety of the officers or others is threatened; 
  2. police have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity; or 
  3. police are conducting a search of the vehicle on other grounds.” 

Once that person is out of the car, police must have “articulable reasonable suspicion” that the person is armed before a pat frisk is constitutionally permissible,” the court ruled. The decision is a positive development and a check on police power in our Commonwealth.

If you were arrested for illegal possession of drugs, firearm, or other weapon, during a traffic stop, call McCormack Law today to see if there is a basis for a motion to suppress in your case. 

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