SJC Rules in Favor of Firearm Suppression

Recently the SJC allowed a suppression motion on a firearm recovered from a suspect in COMMONWEALTH vs. JOSE GOMES. 458 Mass. 1017 (2010). The case revolved around the police receiving an anonymous tip that a subject was waving the gun in the air, but when they arrived he was seated in the vehicle.

According to the facts of the case, “The defendant was convicted by a jury in the District Court of unlawful firearm and ammunition possession, after having moved unsuccessfully to suppress certain evidence. The Appeals Court concluded that the defendant’s motion was wrongly denied and reversed the convictions. See Commonwealth v. Gomes, 75 Mass. App. Ct. 791 (2009). We granted the Commonwealth’s application for further appellate review. We reverse the defendant’s convictions.

Discussion. The defendant moved to suppress the physical evidence under both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and art. 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. In denying the motion, the judge concluded that the information provided by the dispatch “was not simply that an individual was carrying a firearm, but rather that he was standing on the street, pointing the gun in the air. Such behavior suggested a potential threat to public safety.” We disagree that the evidence justified the stop and frisk of the defendant.

There is no “firearm exception” to the general rule barring investigatory stops and frisks on the sole basis of an anonymous tip. See Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266, 272-274 (2000). This case involves such a tip, as there was no evidence about the 911 caller’s identity or identifiability. See Commonwealth v. Gomes,75 Mass. App. Ct. 791 , 794-795 (2009), and cases cited. See also Florida v. J.L., supra at 270-271. Moreover, there was no evidence of the caller’s basis of knowledge or veracity; no predictions by the caller of facts later confirmed by the police, to show the caller had inside knowledge; and no evidence of corroboration by the police of more than innocent details, i.e., the defendant’s presence near a green Honda, his race, and his gray shirt. See Florida v. J.L., supra at 270-272. Thus, there was no basis to conclude that the 911 caller’s report of possibly criminal behavior was reliable. See id. at 272 (reasonable suspicion requires that tip be reliable “in its assertion of illegality, not just in its tendency to identify a determinate person”). See also Commonwealth v. Gomes, supra at 795-796, and cases cited. The United States Supreme Court in Florida v. J.L., supra at 273, recognized that there may be “circumstances under which the danger alleged in an anonymous tip might be so great as to justify a search even without a showing of reliability[, such as] a report of a person carrying a bomb.” Similarly, we have recognized that, under art. 14, although an anonymous tip about “a concealed weapon” cannot alone create reasonable suspicion to justify an investigatory stop, such suspicion may arise where there is an “indication (in the tip or otherwise) of a threat to [someone’s] physical well being,” i.e., an “imminent threat to public safety.” Commonwealth v. Alvarado, supra at 271, 274. The facts found by the motion judge in this case, however, do not show great or imminent danger. To be sure, this case concerned a report of a man holding a gun in the air rather than merely carrying a gun, as occurred in Florida v. J.L., supra, and Commonwealth v. Alvarado, supra. But that distinction alone does not transform this case into one of great or imminent danger. There was no evidence that the gun had been fired, pointed at another person, or otherwise handled in a way that posed a threat to someone, nor was there evidence that the defendant was a dangerous person. Moreover, when the officer approached the defendant, the defendant sat in his automobile and made no furtive, evasive, or otherwise suspicious movements, nor did he make any statements to arouse suspicion. Although Officer Oliveira responded to the dispatch more quickly than did the officer in J.L. (three minutes here versus six minutes in J.L., see Florida v. J.L., supra at 268), that difference is not meaningful. See Commonwealth v. Alvarado, supra at 273. Nor is the fact that the area was known for “gang activity.” See Commonwealth v. Mubdi, 456 Mass. 385 , 398 (2010), and cases cited. By stopping and frisking the defendant solely based on the anonymous tip relayed in the dispatch, the police violated the defendant’s rights under the Fourth Amendment and art. 14, and the evidence should have been suppressed. Compare Commonwealth v. Barros, 435 Mass. 171 , 176-178 (2001), with Commonwealth v. Mercado, 422 Mass. 367 , 369-371 (1996).

Conclusion. The order denying the defendant’s motion to suppress is vacated, and an order shall enter allowing that motion. The judgments of conviction are reversed. So ordered.”

Attorney Ronald A. Sellon


About Attorney Ronald A. Sellon

Ronald A. Sellon is a licensed Attorney in the state of Massachusetts and U.S. District Court, Massachusetts as well as a Sergeant with a Municipal Police Department and U.S. military Veteran. Additionally, he has taught Criminal Procedure at the Massachusetts State Police Academy in New Braintree and has written a text on Criminal Procedure for police field training officer programs. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, was a 2008 recipient of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police (Mass C.O.P.) Presidents award and holds a Bachelors Degree in Law Enforcement, a Masters Degree in Criminal Justice Administration, and a Juris Doctor Law Degree. Questions related to content material may be directed to
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