The Commonwealth Supreme Court recently vacated a conviction because the police lacked probable cause to stop and search the defendant. The decision addressed four issues, but centered on two. The first was how much proof the police need to provide to show that a place is a high-crime area. The second was whether being at a beach late at night and then attempting to leave when an unidentified vehicle approaches is enough for police to have a reasonable suspicion that the occupants of the car had committed or were about to commit a felony or a traffic infraction.
In deciding how much evidence the government must provide to show a place is a high-crime area, the court noted that calling the place of an arrest a high-crime area was a powerful designation that nearly always authorized a police stop. Because of that, the government could not just ask courts to take the government’s word for it; the government must provide objective, verifiable data that a place is, in fact, a high-crime area. Here, the government did not offer objective, verifiable data. Therefore, it was an error to conclude the beach was a high-crime area.
Moving to whether police had probable cause to stop the defendant’s car, the court answered no. The government failed to show that the car drove recklessly or attempted to flee from police. At most, the evidence showed that the car was at a beach late at night and that it left when an unidentified vehicle approached. That was not enough to justify a stop because it is long settled that mere presence at night in a place known for illegal activity is not enough. There must be something more.
The Supreme Court’s full opinion is Commonwealth v. Crisostomo, 2014 MP 18, and can be found at http://www.cnmilaw.org/supreme14.html.
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