Massachusetts Appellate Court to Decide Constitutionality of Traffic Stop and Frisk
The Fourth Amendment and the state equivalent have many exceptions. Officers are generally permitted to patdown the outer layer of a person’s clothes during a traffic stop if the officer fears that the person may be armed and dangerous. But what if the officer only finds pills, not weapons? The appellate court heard oral arguments on October 1st requiring this issue in Commonwealth v. Wade.
What happened in the Wade case?
Wade was a backseat passenger of a car that was pulled over for a motor vehicle infraction. A state trooper claimed that there was an odor of burnt marijuana emanating from the driver’s window. When another trooper saw Wade put his hands down his pants, he ordered him to exit the vehicle. On this alone he pulled him out of the vehicle and searched him. He felt a pill bottle in Wade’s waistband. Oxycodone was found on his person. On February 4th, 2019, Wade filed a Motion to Suppress the evidence that gave rise to the charges. On March 26th, 2019, the judge held an evidentiary hearing in which two witnesses testified. Wade argued that there was no authorization for the exit order or the search, there was no justification for the patfrisk he endured, and that the search was not reasonable. The judge did not reference the difference in standards between the justification for an exit order and justification for a patfrisk. Wade was found guilty of possession of oxycodone and was sentenced to one year in jail.
Wade filed a motion to suppress the evidence which was denied. The motion judge found that ordering Wade to exit the vehicle was justified due to concerns of officer safety and reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. However, the judge presiding over the motion to suppress did not determine whether the patfrisk was authorized, and further, whether the seizure of the pill bottle exceeded the scope of the patfrisk.
Further, Wade argues that the patfrisk itself was not permissible. During a stop for which there is constitutional justification, a patfrisk is only permissible where an officer has reasonable suspicion that the suspect is armed and dangerous. While the motion judge found that Wade putting his hands down his pants warranted an exit order, the judge did not find that the troopers had reasonable suspicion that Wade was armed and dangerous. Rather, the motion judge found that Wade was a gentleman, he was not combative and did not engage in any other gestures or threatening behavior. The trooper did not have actual knowledge or reason to believe he was armed and dangerous. Although the exit order may have been justified, the Commonwealth failed to prove that the police had reasonable suspicion that wade was armed and dangerous to justify the patfrisk.
Even if the patfrisk itself was permissible, the trooper exceeded the scope of the frisk when he removed the pill bottle. A pill bottle cannot be mistaken for a weapon such as a gun or a knife. The trooper himself testified that he knew it was not a weapon as soon as he touched it. Even when the bottle of removed, it is not immediately contraband. Many people carry their prescriptions with them for both convenience and emergency.
The Massachusetts Appellate Court will hear oral arguments on this case on October 1st, and hopefully will reconsider the constitutionally of Wade’s search.
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