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Massachusetts SJC defines seizure in Commonwealth v. Matta, what police encounters raise Constitutional challenges

 

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.

While the intro of “it depends” is meant to get a chuckle from anyone who has ever asked a lawyer a question, it holds true here.  The question of whether a person is seized (or if Matta was seized) is very fact-specific.  It is easy to figure out at the extremes: a person under arrest is definitely seized, and an officer saying hello to a passer-by has not.  Going back to the reasonable person standard, no reasonable person who is handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car would feel free to leave, and no reasonable person would feel the officer is using her authority to command the person.

In the middle is where it is harder to figure out, and turns on the specifics of the interaction.  Something significantly more restrictive or a longer interaction with the police than the officer saying “hi” may still not be a seizure.  If an officer knocks on the door of a house, and the person answering the door is not seized, even if questioned.  The officer has not shown any authority to stop the person answering from doing anything.

Likewise, a person who voluntarily reports a crime to the police is not seized – they started the conversation, and the officer has not done anything to restrict the reporter from leaving.  In contrast, when the police pull their weapon, when several officers respond and surround a person, when an officer grabs a person’s body, or even the officer’s tone or language can all indicate that they are using their authority to make the citizen comply with their orders.

Back to the Matta case, he argued that the police “seized” him when the officer yelled “hey, come here” at him, while the Commonwealth argued he was not seized until Matta ran and the officer yelled at him to stop.  The court looked at the fact that the officer only asked once, did not use his lights or sirens, and at that point, had not done anything to restrict Matta’s freedom in deciding that Matta was not yet seized.

If you have questions about whether the police had a right to question you, consider calling Attorney DelSignore to review whether your constitutional rights were violated by the police interaction.  You can also follow Attorney DelSignore on Facebook and learn about new updates to Massachusetts Criminal Laws.

 

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