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Massachusetts court: anxiety during traffic stop not grounds for search

Picture in your mind the last time you got pulled over by the police. Between the loud siren, the flashing lights and the approaching police officer – never mind the looming threat of an expensive traffic ticket – you were probably pretty nervous, right? Maybe you fumbled with your wallet a little bit or acted anxious when you spoke with the police officer?

If so, you probably didn’t think that your reaction was all that unique or suspicious. In a recent case, the Massachusetts Appeals Court agreed. It ruled that nervous behavior alone is not sufficient evidence to give police justification to conduct a protective sweep of a person’s vehicle. Instead, there must be actual evidence to indicate a threat of violent crime.

Commonwealth v. Johnson

The case stemmed from a traffic stop in a known high-crime area in the Roxbury section of Boston. Two Boston police officers and one Massachusetts state trooper were driving in an unmarked car when they noticed that the vehicle ahead of them had ignored a red light and made an illegal right turn without signaling. After looking up the vehicle’s information, they decided to pull over the vehicle on the basis of the traffic violations alone.

When officers approached the vehicle, the driver started behaving as if he was very nervous. According to the officers, he kept looking at his passenger and rubbing his hands on his thighs. In addition, officers said the drivers hands were shaking and he fumbled while removing his license from his wallet. The passenger was also apparently behaving nervously. At no point did either the driver or the passenger make furtive gestures or hide their hands. It was also discovered that the driver had an outstanding warrant for an earlier traffic violation.

Eventually, both the driver and the passenger were ordered to get out of the car. Then, the police officers searched the vehicle, claiming that the driver and passenger’s nervous behavior raised questions that there might be a weapon in the car. During the search, officers found a handgun wrapped in a sock in the backseat.

Ultimately, the defendant was convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm. He appealed, claiming that police had searched the vehicle in violation of his constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Evidence of threat required for protective search

The Massachusetts Court of Appeals held that officers can only conduct a “protective sweep” of a vehicle when there is a reasonable fear that the safety of others might be in jeopardy. As part of that standard, officers must have specific information that indicates there might be a weapon in the car. The mere fact that a driver or passenger seems anxious is not enough. Similarly, the fact that the driver had an outstanding warrant was not sufficient, since the warrant was for a nonviolent motor vehicle offense and there was nothing to suggest that either the driver or the passenger had any history of violence or weapons possession.

As a result of the court’s decision, the driver’s conviction was reversed. When police violate the constitution in conducting a search, the evidence gathered from that search cannot be used in court. In this case, there was not enough evidence to uphold the driver’s conviction once the gun was taken out of consideration. The case was therefore dismissed.

The court’s decision makes it clear that police need to comply with constitutional standards before making an invasive search of a suspect or his property. Unfortunately, police officers sometimes try to unreasonably interpret these standards — or disregard them altogether. If you have been arrested following a traffic stop, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. An attorney can make sure that the rules were followed and ensure that your constitutional rights are protected.

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