Searches in high crime areas: Are they Constitutional in Massachusetts

January 31, 2013
By Michael DelSignore on January 31, 2013 5:51 AM |

As a Boston criminal defense lawyer, defending drug cases, often the initial police seizure will be based on the defendant being in a high crime area. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has stated numerous times that being present in a high crime area or flight from the police is insufficient to justify a stop under the 4th Amendment or Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed this issue in the case of
United States v. Bumpers. A police officer was conducting a routine patrol. While he was driving by a local convenience store in a high-crime area, the officer noticed two men standing by dumpsters located. The officer observed the two men for five or ten seconds and then pulled into the parking lot. At that time the men began walking away from the dumpsters. The officer exited his car and told the two men that they were not free to go. One of the men, defendant Irvin Bumpers, obeyed the officer's orders.

The officer obtained the defendant's name and ran a records check on the name and the search returned an active warrant. The officer then arrested Bumpers and searched him. Upon searching him, the officer found a .38 caliber Special Taurus revolver on Bumpers. Bumpers was found guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Bumpers appealed to the Fourth Circuit on the denial of his motion to suppress, where he argued that the officer gathered the revolver as a result of an unlawful seizure.

The issue was whether the seizure violated Bumper's Fourth Amendment rights. The Fourth Circuit held that it was not a Fourth Amendment violation. The Court held that there must be a balance between public safety and an individual's right to be free from arbitrary law enforcement officers. Therefore, an officer must have a reasonable suspicion in order to search an individual he or she suspects of criminal activity and that the criminal activity may be occurring.

The Court gave four reasons for why the officer has reasonable suspicion to stop Bumper:
• They were in a high-crime area where there had been multiple shootings and drug arrests. The Court said that high-crime areas can be used as one of the relevant contextual considerations when determining reasonable suspicion.
• The men were standing by the dumpsters outside of the store, which were not in close proximity to the entrance. This suggested that they were trespassing.
• There was evidence of evasive conduct. As soon as Bumpers saw the police car, he and other man began walking away at a fast pace. Their conduct was more consistent with a trespasser than a lawful patron.
• Bumpers was not a patron of the store. He walked right past the entrance of the store when he saw the officer, so the Court gathered that he had no future intent to shop there. Also, he most likely did not shop there prior to the stop because the dumpster was behind the store, and when he walked away from the officer he walked in front of the store. If he were shopping, it would suggest that he double backed between the entrance and the dumpster. The Court thought that it these actions would be unlikely.

The Court's holding in this case was heavily based on specific facts: a high-crime area, the defendant's location in proximity to a dumpster, and the fact that it did not appear that the defendant was a patron of the store. With these specific facts, the Court justified the officer's actions in order to promote public safety. As a Boston criminal attorney, I do not believe the Massachusetts Courts would place as much emphasis on the area being a high crime area as it diminishes the Constitutional rights of individual living in low income areas.