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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Clarifies Standards for Exit Order and Patfrisk

The Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts affirmed the suppression of evidence resulting from a patfrisk that was conducted after the defendant had exited his vehicle unprompted by police, and twice looked back into it during his encounter with officers.

Manuel Torres-Pagan (“Torres”) was pulled over in a Springfield, Massachusetts, neighborhood because officers noticed his windshield was cracked and his inspection sticker expired. After officers turned on their lights, Torres pulled over into the driveway of a residence and exited the vehicle without being instructed to do so by the officers. He remained standing outside the vehicle with the door open as officers approached. On more than one occasion during the encounter, Torres turned to look inside the vehicle.

The officers decided this was “furtive” behavior, placed him in handcuffs, and performed a patfrisk on him. They found a knife in his pants pocket. They then asked him if he had any other weapons. He responded that he did, and they located a firearm on the floor of the driver’s side of the vehicle.

Prior to trial, Torres filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the weapons, claiming they were the result of an unconstitutional search because he argued officers lacked proper justification for the patfrisk. The district court granted his motion, though its decision was overturned on an interlocutory appeal. The Supreme Judicial Court then granted leave for appeal to hear the case.

Both the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights protect against unreasonable searches and seizures. A patfrisk is a “carefully limited search of the outer clothing of a person ... to discover weapons” for safety purposes. Terry v. Ohio, 392 US 1 (1968). A patfrisk is “permissible only where an officer has reasonable suspicion that the suspect is armed and dangerous.” Arizona v. Johnson, 555 US 323 (2009).

The Court acknowledged that, in the past, it had issued confusing guidance regarding the standard for a patfrisk, especially as it relates to the standard for exit orders. The Court observed that it sometimes conflated the two standards. In the past it “stated, inaccurately, that the standard for a patfrisk is the same as that which is required to justify an exit order,” citing Commonwealth v. Torres, 745 N.E.2d 945 (Mass. 2001). Additionally, “we mistakenly have described a patfrisk as being ‘constitutionally justified when an officer reasonably fears for his own safety or the safety of the public … or when the police officer reasonably believes that the individual is armed and dangerous,” the Court lamented. 

The Court then announced: “we clarify today 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…. A lawful patfrisk, however, requires more; that is, police must have a reasonable suspicion, based on specific articulable facts, that the suspect is armed and dangerous.” The Court explained that different standards for exit orders and patfrisks is logical since the degree of intrusion associated with each is also different.

Applying the clarified standards to the present case, the Court rejected the Commonwealth’s argument that the patfrisk was justified because Torres exited the vehicle unprompted by the police coupled with the fact he looked inside the vehicle multiple times.

The Commonwealth argued that the Torres’ actions were “furtive” and thus established reasonable suspicion that he was armed. The Court, however, noted that “furtive” means “done by stealth” or “secret” and that merely looking into the vehicle wasn’t stealthy and indicated nothing illegal by itself. While exiting the vehicle may have been unexpected, it wasn’t altogether peculiar, unusual, or threatening, according to the Court.

The Commonwealth also argued that the patfrisk was justified because Torres was pulled over in a “high crime area.” The Court rejected this argument as well, citing Commonwealth v. Jones-Pannell, 35 N.E.3d 357 (Mass. 2015): “That one or more crimes occurred at some point in the past somewhere on a particular street does not necessarily render the entire street a high crime area, either at that time or in perpetuity.” Given the facts of the case, the Court concluded that simply because the stop may have occurred in a high crime area doesn’t constitute reasonable suspicion that Torres was armed and dangerous.

The Court therefore ruled that the patfrisk of Torres and subsequent search of his vehicle were unconstitutional.

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Related legal case

Commonwealth v. Torres-Pagan



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