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Massachusetts Appeals Court address when a Stop Frisk is permitted under the 4th Amendment

The irony of living in a high crime area is that it makes the innocent more susceptible to searches and arrests. The case of Commonwealth v. Karen K. looks at a juvenile who was searched based on a police officer’s assumptions about the local area.

What happened in the Karen K. case?

Karen K. is a juvenile who resides in the Boston area. On November 1st, 2018, a concerned resident of a housing complex called the Boston Police Department to report that a group of “kids” was loitering and displaying a gun outside the complex. Officer Lopes reported to the scene. He was familiar with the complex because he had made many arrests there in the past. Lopes had a negative connotation associated with this building, and police had responded to shots fired at the building that same week.

Lopes pulled up to the complex and saw two people walk in the direction of the officers. It appeared that once the people saw the officers, they ran to the right and headed into an alley by the housing complex. Lopez observed the juvenile walk and looked over her shoulder, adjusting her waistband and turning her body away from view. The lower court judge found that the juvenile “bladed” her body as to conceal something on her. Lopes claims that during training, he learned that this method of movement is a common characteristic of a gunman.

Lopes followed the juvenile and grabbed her arm. He then called over a female officer to pat down the juvenile. The female officer found three cell phones and a loaded gun.

Lopes argues that he had reasonable suspicion and reason to believe that the juvenile was armed and dangerous based on the character of the area and the events that usually take place at the apartment complex. The juvenile does not challenge the findings, but she contends that the investigatory stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion. She argues that Lopes had no reason to believe that she was armed and dangerous. A police officer is permitted to stop anyone so long as there is reasonable suspicion at the time of the stop; an officer must believe that the person had committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. However, this is very difficult to prove, and an officer can claim reasonable suspicion for just about anything.

The legal question of whether Lopes had reasonable suspicion comes down to whether Lopes had a reasonable suspicion grounded in specific, articulable facts and reasonable inferences drawn therefrom.

To conduct a pat frisk, the officer needs more than just a reasonable suspicion that the defendant is armed and dangerous. Here, Lopes concluded from the juvenile’s movements and the active firearm activity at the complex lead him to believe that the juvenile had a weapon. Massachusetts law permits only individuals over the age of 21 to have a concealed carry license. Anyone under the age of 21 who has a gun has committed a crime. The juvenile, in this case, was charged and attempted to suppress the evidence but ultimately failed.

This case is unfortunate because the juvenile here was armed. However, far too often, individuals are stopped and frisked, and nothing is found. Reasonable suspicion is by no means a foolproof standard to hold officers to. The dissent, in this case, focuses on this fact and is concerned with the holding. According to the dissenting judges, this holding sends the message that anyone in a high crime area who moves their hand on their waist may be legally stopped and frisked.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has recognized that many honest, law-abiding citizens live and work in high-crime areas. Those citizens are entitled to their freedom and protection from being stopped and searched.

Judging from this case’s outcome, it is a good rule of thumb to be on one’s best behavior in a high crime area because any actions that may come off as suspicious could give rise to a legal search by law enforcement. To learn more about firearms cases, follow Attorney DelSignore on Facebook.

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