Like all things in the law, the answer to the question “is this a seizure?” is “it depends.” A seizure, under criminal law, is similar to being stopped or detained. The Massachusetts Declaration of Human Rights and the United States Constitution protect citizens from unreasonable seizures. A seizure does not mean being arrested, but means that a person does not feel free to leave from police presence. Courts use a “reasonable person” standard when reviewing whether a seizure occurred; basically, courts look at the situation and determine whether, under all of the circumstances, the officer has used their authority to the point that a person would feel that they are required to follow the officer’s commands.
Last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided Commonwealth v. Matta. In this case, Matta was a passenger in a car. The car had been the subject of two phone calls from unknown sources to the Holyoke Police, who reported that someone in the car had placed a gun under the seat. Without having a warrant to search or arrest, or even probable cause to detain, the police begin to investigate. Responding to the call, Holyoke police department found Matta’s car parked in an area that the Supreme Judicial Court described as being “known for violent crime, drug sales, and shootings,” and pulled in behind it, without lights or sirens.
As the officer was getting out of his patrol car, Matta got out of his. The officer observed him grab at the right side of his waistband with both hands and adjust the waistband, then walk toward some bushes away from the sidewalk. The officer said something to the effect of “Hey come here for a second” to Matta, who made eye contact with the officer, and then began to run. The officer chased Matta, and yelled at him to stop. During the chase, Matta threw a bag of what was later found to be heroin over a fence, presumably so the police wouldn’t find it on him if he was caught. Matta eventually tried to scale a fence, and was captured.