Com. v. Stawarz

Decision Date27 April 1992
Docket NumberNo. 91-P-513,91-P-513
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH v. John E. STAWARZ (and eleven companion cases 1 ).
CourtAppeals Court of Massachusetts

Katherine E. McMahon, Asst. Dist. Atty., for Com.

M. Page Kelley, Committee for Public Counsel Services, Boston, for Michael A. Stawarz.

Thomas C. Carrigan, Worcester, for John E. Stawarz.


JACOBS, Justice.

In this interlocutory appeal, 2 the Commonwealth seeks reversal of an order of a Superior Court judge suppressing evidence seized from the defendants after an arrest. We hold that the evidence was seized incident to an unlawful arrest and therefore affirm the judge's order.

We take the facts as found by the judge and as supported by the uncontroverted testimony of two Worcester police officers, the sole witnesses at the hearing on the motion to suppress. At 9:50 P.M. on February 21, 1990, the two officers, Francis Hackett and James Rooney, while on duty in an unmarked vehicle, received a police radio report that a late 1970's model blue Ford LTD automobile had been stolen. At or about 10:50 P.M. the officers observed a "late seventies" blue Ford LTD parked approximately a mile and one-half from where the theft had occurred. The driver and only apparent occupant of the vehicle was acting suspiciously, "turning his head and looking about." After the officers drove by the Ford a second time, they saw it drive off and noticed that a second person was in the vehicle. The officers followed in their unmarked vehicle and, in keeping with their usual procedure, called for a marked cruiser to assist them in making a stop. After a short while, during which the Ford was operated lawfully, four or five marked police cruisers 3 and the unmarked vehicle converged upon the Ford almost simultaneously. The judge found this convergence to be unintentional. One of the cruisers forced the Ford to stop by cutting off its path while the other cruisers and the unmarked vehicle surrounded it, blocking it from the rear and on each side. At that point, some of the uniformed officers were alighting from their vehicles. There were at least eight to ten police officers present, all but two in uniform. Officers Hackett and Rooney stopped their vehicle behind the Ford and approached it on foot. Hackett saw through the passenger window that the ignition lock was missing and the steering column was damaged. The occupants of the Ford (the defendants) were then ordered out of the vehicle and patted down. The vehicle search followed. At no time did any officer at the scene draw a gun. Before they were ordered out of their vehicle, the defendants had not attempted to leave nor were they seen to react in any suspicious manner to the stop.

The officers' observation of a "late seventies" Ford LTD about an hour after, and a mile and one-half from, the place where a similarly described vehicle had been reported stolen, coupled with the suspicious behavior of the driver, supplied the police officers with sufficient basis for initiating a stop of the observed vehicle. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 1879, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). Commonwealth v. Riggins, 366 Mass. 81, 86, 315 N.E.2d 525 (1974) (Terry principles are applicable to automobile stops). See Commonwealth v. Moses, 408 Mass. 136, 140, 557 N.E.2d 14 (1990). It is clear that there was no probable cause for arrest until observation was made of the steering column and the Commonwealth does not argue otherwise. The issue, therefore, is whether the circumstances preceding that observation constituted, or were tantamount to, an arrest. The test is whether "[t]he degree of intrusiveness on a citizen's personal security, including considerations of time, space, and force, [is] proportional to the degree of suspicion that prompted the intrusion." Commonwealth v. Borges, 395 Mass. 788, 794, 482 N.E.2d 314 (1985). "The pertinent inquiry is whether the degree of intrusion is reasonable in the circumstances." Commonwealth v. Moses, supra 408 Mass. at 141, 557 N.E.2d 14. "The test is an objective one," although the subjective intent of the investigating officers may be relevant. 4 Commonwealth v. Sanderson, 398 Mass. 761, 766 & n. 9, 500 N.E.2d 1337 (1986).

The temporary immobilization by blocking of the defendants' vehicle was not, by itself, unreasonably intrusive. Commonwealth v. Moses, supra 408 Mass. at 142-143 & n. 6, 557 N.E.2d 14. Commonwealth v. Fitzgibbons, 23 Mass.App.Ct. 301, 304, 502 N.E.2d 142 (1986). Similarly, the momentary time lapse between the stop and the approach of the officers was not unreasonable. Contrast Commonwealth v. Sanderson, supra 398 Mass. at 766, 500 N.E.2d 1337 (the police detained the defendant for approximately forty minutes). The pivotal question, therefore, is whether the police intrusion was reasonable in the circumstances. The resolution of that question involves an analysis of whether the force used was "proportional to the degree of suspicion that prompted the intrusion." Commonwealth v. Borges, supra 395 Mass. at 794, 482 N.E.2d 314. This inquiry, of necessity, should be made in light of any reasonable concerns by the police officers for their personal safety or for that of the general public. See Commonwealth v. Moses, supra 408 Mass. at 142, 557 N.E.2d 14; Commonwealth v. Fitzgibbons, supra 23 Mass.App.Ct. at 304, 502 N.E.2d 142. We agree with the finding of the trial judge that the suspicion of the police was of a level "just beyond impermissible hunch." The radioed description of the stolen vehicle, without mention of a registration number, was skeletal, and the "suspicious" actions of the first observed suspect were not particularly distinctive. Conversely, the degree of force utilized by the police was substantial and perhaps extravagant considering the nature of the crime under investigation. See Commonwealth v....

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9 cases
  • Com. v. Cook
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court
    • December 20, 1994
    ...2387, 115 L.Ed.2d 389 (1991). Commonwealth v. Sanderson, 398 Mass. 761, 766 n. 9, 500 N.E.2d 1337 (1986). Commonwealth v. Stawarz, 32 Mass.App.Ct. 211, 213, 587 N.E.2d 797 (1992). The intentions of the officers are relevant as only one factor in considering whether, in light of all the surr......
  • Com. v. Hecox
    • United States
    • Appeals Court of Massachusetts
    • September 7, 1993
    ...Mass. 788, 794, 482 N.E.2d 314 (1985); Commonwealth v. Moses, 408 Mass. 136, 141, 557 N.E.2d 14 (1990); Commonwealth v. Stawarz, 32 Mass.App.Ct. 211, 213-214, 587 N.E.2d 797 (1992); Smith, Criminal Practice and Procedure § 72 (1983 and Supp.1993).6 Massachusetts has not adopted under State ......
  • Com. v. Andrews
    • United States
    • Appeals Court of Massachusetts
    • June 28, 1993
    ...reported to be occupied by a male with a handgun who allegedly had pointed the weapon at a group of people); Commonwealth v. Stawarz, 32 Mass.App.Ct. 211, 213, 587 N.E.2d 797 (1992) (reasonable suspicion for stop found when police observed a late 1970's model Ford LTD automobile about an ho......
  • Com. v. Doulette
    • United States
    • Appeals Court of Massachusetts
    • August 4, 1992
    ...observations. We consider important that finding by the judge. Contrast id. at 299, 303, 503 N.E.2d 1287; Commonwealth v. Stawarz, 32 Mass.App.Ct. 211, 587 N.E.2d 797 (1992) (sudden stop of defendant's vehicle by blocking its path created the impression that the intrusion was more than a ro......
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