POLICE MUST EXPLAIN FACTUAL BASIS FOR BELIEF THAT A VEHICLE IS SPEEDING – A “HUNCH” IS NOT ENOUGH
The Supreme Judicial Court recently concluded that where a criminal defendant challenges the legality of a traffic stop for speeding, the police must articulate specific facts that support the conclusion that the defendant’s speed was greater that reasonable.
In the 2016 case of Commonwealth v. Teixeira-Furtado, the police stopped a car for speeding. At about the same time, the defendant passenger jumped out of the passenger seat and ran away. When he was caught soon afterwards, he was found to be in possession of a firearm.
Defense counsel moved to suppress the firearm as evidence at trial, arguing that there was no lawful basis for the traffic stop to begin with. The police officers testified at the suppression hearing, and their testimony in support of the traffic stop was that the vehicle carrying the defendant had been travelling at a speed greater than reasonable. The motion judge ordered the firearm suppressed. On appeal, the Appeals Court held that the stop was constitutionally permissible, and overturned the motion judge’s allowance of the suppression motion.
In reversing the Appeals Court’s reversal of the motion judge’s allowance of the motion to suppress (and thereby re-suppressing the firearm), the SJC concluded that “the Commonwealth offered nothing [at the motion hearing] that would have permitted the motion judge to evaluate the reasonableness of the officer’s conclusory statement that the speed [of the vehicle] was unreasonable.”
The Court set forth examples of testimony that would have supported the officers’ conclusion as to speeding, such as an estimate of the vehicle’s actual speed, its speed compared to other traffic at the time, any radar or LIDAR readings, or the posted speed limit for that particular location. Other helpful testimony would include the traffic on the road, the use being made of the road by pedestrians or others, or other relevant safety considerations, suggested the SJC.
The legal basis for the SJC’s decision is that when the police stop a car for speeding, they have effected a constitutional “seizure.” Pursuant to long-standing constitutional precedent, such a seizure must be based on – and supported by – “articulable facts sufficient to warrant a reasonably prudent person in the police officer’s position in forming that conclusion.” Because the officers did not testify as to facts supporting their conclusion that the vehicle was travelling at an unreasonable speed, their seizure of the defendant was unconstitutional.
The case reminds the criminal defense practitioner that rather than accepting at face value the conclusions drawn by police officers, it is sometimes helpful to delve deeper, into the actual basis and underpinning of what might turn out to have been merely a hunch. As the case law makes clear, in this context, “[a] hunch will not suffice.” Commonwealth v. Wren, 391 Mass. 705, 707 (1984).
Attorney Kevin D. Quinlan
2 South Main Street, Suite 201
P.O. Box 248
Uxbridge, MA 01569