Massachusetts Supreme Court Throws Out Gun Conviction of Black Man

The top court in Massachusetts overruled a lower state court and threw out a gun possession conviction of a black man for lack of reasonable suspicion. The incident took place in Boston on a cold night.

Officer Luis Anjos answered a call and went to assist in a burglary where “suspects were fleeing the scene.” He spoke with the victims.

The victim opened his bedroom door and saw a black male wearing a “red hoodie” (hooded sweatshirt) jump out of the window. When the victim looked out the window he saw two other black males, one wearing a “black hoodie,” and the other wearing “dark clothing.” When the victim checked his belongings, he noticed that his backpack, a computer, and five baseball hats were missing.

Nobody could tell which direction the men headed. The officer took the report and began looking around the neighborhood for suspects. As the officer was returning to the police station:

he saw two black males, both wearing dark clothing, walking by some basketball courts near a park. One male wore a dark-colored “hoodie.” Neither of the two carried a backpack…

When Anjos spotted the defendant and his companion, he had a hunch that they might have been involved in the breaking and entering. He based his hunch on the time of night, the proximity to the breaking and entering, and the fit of the males to the “general description” provided by the victim. He decided “to figure out who they were and where they were coming from and possibly do [a field interrogation observation (FIO)].”

Officer Anjos called out to the men “Hey guys,” but the men jogged away. The officer called in that “three men fitting the descriptions provided by the victim” had been located.

Two more officers arrived. One of the men appeared to be “clutching the right side of his pants,… consistent with carry a gun without a holster.” The two men were apprehended with force, and a gun was found in the area. The man who apparently discarded the gun said he did not have a license to carry. He was convicted of unlawful possession and appealed the case.

In Massachusetts, an FIO or “field interrogation observation” is not a formal police stop. Rather, it is an investigatory stop where police attempt to ask questions. A citizen being pursued for such an interrogation need not stop or acknowledge police, and has the right to walk away or flee.

The state supreme court found that the stop was made without reasonable suspicion and threw out the conviction. The court reasoned [PDF]:

The essence of the reasonable suspicion inquiry is whether the police have an individualized suspicion that the person seized is the perpetrator of the suspected crime. We are not persuaded that the information available to the police at the time of the seizure was sufficiently specific to establish reasonable suspicion that the defendant was connected to the breaking and entering under investigation.

  • The description was vague. “If anything, the victim’s description tended to exclude the defendant as a suspect: he was one of two men, not three; he was not wearing a red ‘hoodie’; and, neither he nor his companion was carrying a backpack.” The officer’s “hunch” was not enough for a legal stop.
  • The location or proximity of the men was “random,” not suspicious. The two men were a mile away from the scene of the crime about 35 minutes later. Looking at a map, they were headed in the wrong direction and they were not far enough away to be fleeing.
  • Finally, avoiding police is not suspicious behavior. Having eliminated suspicion for a vague and mismatched description and for a random location, the court found that avoidance of the police trying to interrogate a person by itself was not suspicious behavior — not in an FIO stop. The court looked at targeting of black men for such encounters:

According to [an official Boston Police study of the FIO process], black men in the city of Boston were more likely to be targeted for police-civilian encounters such as stops, frisks, searches, observations, and interrogations. Black men were also disproportionately targeted for repeat encounters. We do not eliminate flight as a factor in the reasonable suspicion analysis whenever a black male is the subject of an investigatory stop. However, in such circumstances, flight is not necessarily probative of a suspect’s state of mind or consciousness of guilt.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently was slapped down by a unanimous Supreme Court summary decision reversing the state for failing to uphold gun rights. This time, the armed individual gets away with the gun without needing to appeal anymore.

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