Commonwealth v. Monell, No. 20-P-821

CourtAppeals Court of Massachusetts
Writing for the CourtKINDER, J.
Citation99 Mass.App.Ct. 487,168 N.E.3d 819
Docket NumberNo. 20-P-821
Decision Date16 April 2021
Parties COMMONWEALTH v. Ernest MONELL.

99 Mass.App.Ct. 487
168 N.E.3d 819

COMMONWEALTH
v.
Ernest MONELL.

No. 20-P-821

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk.

Argued March 4, 2021.
Decided April 16, 2021.


Sarah Montgomery Lewis, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

Kelly M. Cusack for the defendant.

Present: Milkey, Kinder, & Sacks, JJ.

KINDER, J.

168 N.E.3d 821
99 Mass.App.Ct. 487

The defendant has been charged with carrying a firearm without a license, second offense, in violation of G. L. c. 269, § 10 (a ) ; carrying a loaded firearm without a license, in violation of G. L. c. 269, § 10 (n ) ; and possession of ammunition without a firearm identification card, in violation of G. L. c. 269, § 10 (h ) (1). Following an evidentiary hearing, a Superior Court

99 Mass.App.Ct. 488

judge allowed the defendant's motion to suppress the firearm seized from the defendant's car following a traffic stop, reasoning that the exit order was unlawful. The Commonwealth's application to pursue an interlocutory appeal was allowed by a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, who reported the matter to this court. The Commonwealth's principal arguments on appeal are that the exit order was justified by a concern for officer safety, and that the subsequent patfrisk search of the defendant's person and the limited search of his car were based on a reasonable suspicion that the defendant was armed and dangerous. We agree and reverse the suppression order.

Background. We summarize the relevant facts from the judge's findings on the motion to suppress, supplemented where appropriate by uncontroverted suppression hearing testimony that the judge explicitly or implicitly credited. See Commonwealth v. Jones-Pannell, 472 Mass. 429, 431, 35 N.E.3d 357 (2015). At approximately 8:42 P.M. on May 21, 2019, there was a homicide by gunshot at 95 Millett Street in the Dorchester section of Boston.1 A little over two hours later, Boston Police Officers Antoine Ramos and Dennis Layden were on routine patrol in the area of Millet Street, which they knew to be a "high crime" area based on previous arrests there, many of which involved firearms. The officers were not directly involved in investigating the homicide, but they were aware that it had occurred and that the shooter remained at large. The officers observed a car fail to stop for a stop sign while "coming off of Millet," such that the officers were forced to slow down abruptly to avoid a collision. They activated their vehicle lights, stopped the car without incident, and approached the driver and sole occupant, later identified as the defendant.

Officer Layden approached the driver's side and asked the defendant for his license and registration. The defendant was compliant and did not appear nervous.2 Officer Ramos went to the passenger's side and illuminated the inside of the car with his flashlight. He observed a holster for a firearm on the driver's side floor, touching the defendant's right foot. Based on his experience,

99 Mass.App.Ct. 489

Officer Ramos knew the holster was the type used to conceal a firearm inside of one's pants. He could not see whether the holster contained a firearm.

Fearing for his safety and that of Officer Layden, Officer Ramos immediately notified Officer Layden of his observation. Officer Layden ordered the defendant to get out of the car. The defendant " ‘froze’

168 N.E.3d 822

while acting as if he was trying to conceal his right hand." Officer Layden then physically removed the defendant from the car and pat frisked his person. The defendant was not armed and possessed no contraband. After the officers placed the defendant in handcuffs, they saw that the holster in the car was empty. Officer Layden then searched the driver's seat area and under the seat discovered a case that felt as if it contained a firearm. He opened the case and discovered a handgun.

Discussion. We accept the judge's factual findings unless they are clearly erroneous. See Commonwealth v. Welch, 420 Mass. 646, 651, 651 N.E.2d 392 (1995). However, we "make an independent determination of the correctness of the judge's application of constitutional principles to the facts." Commonwealth v. Mercado, 422 Mass. 367, 369, 663 N.E.2d 243 (1996).

1. The exit order. Our analysis begins with the validity of the exit order because there is no dispute that the initial stop of the defendant's vehicle was valid. See Commonwealth v. Amado, 474 Mass. 147, 151, 48 N.E.3d 414 (2016), quoting Commonwealth v. Santana, 420 Mass. 205, 207, 649 N.E.2d 717 (1995) ("Where the police have observed a traffic violation, they are warranted in stopping a vehicle"). "[A]n exit order is justified during a traffic stop where (1) police are warranted in the belief that the safety of the officers or others is threatened; (2) police have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity; or (3) police are conducting a search of the vehicle on other grounds." Commonwealth v. Torres-Pagan, 484 Mass. 34, 38, 138 N.E.3d 1012 (2020), citing Amado, supra at 151-152, 48 N.E.3d 414. Our focus here is on the first factor, the perceived threat to the officers’ safety. To justify an exit order on this basis, an officer's fear must be grounded in "specific, articulable facts and reasonable inferences" in light of the officer's experience (citation omitted). Commonwealth v. Silvelo, 486 Mass. 13, 16, 154 N.E.3d 904 (2020). See Commonwealth v. Silva, 366 Mass. 402, 406, 318 N.E.2d 895 (1974). The test is an objective one that is based on the "totality of the circumstances" (citation omitted). Commonwealth v. Gonsalves, 429 Mass. 658, 665, 711 N.E.2d 108 (1999).

Here, the defendant was stopped late at night by officers on patrol in an area where they knew there had been a fatal shooting

99 Mass.App.Ct. 490

approximately two hours earlier.3 The officers also knew that the shooter remained at large. When Officer Ramos saw a holster on the floor within the defendant's reach, he believed that the holster might contain a firearm, and the judge found his belief to be reasonable. These facts were enough to cause "a heightened awareness of danger that would warrant an objectively reasonable police officer" in fearing for his safety (citation omitted). Commonwealth v. Stampley, 437 Mass. 323, 326, 771 N.E.2d 784 (2002). We recognize that the defendant was unknown to the officers and did not engage in suspicious behavior prior to the exit order. But the test we apply is based on the totality of the circumstances, and "it does not take much for a police officer to establish a reasonable basis to justify an exit order or search based on safety concerns." Gonsalves, 429 Mass. at 664, 711 N.E.2d 108. "The Constitution does not require officers to gamble with

168 N.E.3d 823

their personal safety" (quotation and citation omitted). Commonwealth v. Haskell, 438 Mass. 790, 794, 784 N.E.2d 625 (2003). Mindful of these principles, we are satisfied that the totality of the circumstances in this case justified the officers’ concern for their safety. Accordingly, the exit order was lawful. See Torres-Pagan, 484 Mass. at 38, 138 N.E.3d 1012.4

2. The patfrisk and search. On appeal, the defendant argues that even if the exit order was lawful, the suppression order should be affirmed because the patfrisk of his person and the limited search of the interior of the car were unconstitutional. The test for a patfrisk is more stringent than for an exit order. A police officer may pat frisk a suspect following an exit order only when he has a reasonable suspicion that the suspect is armed and dangerous. Torres-Pagan, 484 Mass. at 38-39, 138 N.E.3d 1012. Here, the defendant " ‘froze’ while acting as if he was trying to conceal his right hand" when

99 Mass.App.Ct. 491

he was ordered out of the car. This specific and articulable fact, considered together with the presence of the holster, the time of night, and the earlier fatal shooting, was sufficient to establish a reasonable suspicion that the defendant was armed and dangerous. See Commonwealth v. DePeiza, 449 Mass. 367, 374 n.4, 868 N.E.2d 90 (2007) (defendant's reaching gesture contributed to officers’ reasonable fear for their safety).

Once the defendant was removed from the car and no weapon was discovered during the patfrisk of his person, the officers were justified in their concern that a weapon might remain in the car. See Commonwealth v. Gouse, 461 Mass. 787, 792-793, 965 N.E.2d 774 (2012). The Supreme Judicial Court has consistently held that in these circumstances the police are permitted to perform a limited, protective search of the car interior. See Silvelo, 486 Mass. at 16, 154 N.E.3d 904 (protective search of vehicle permitted where "defendant may access a weapon left behind upon returning to the vehicle"); Commonwealth v. Douglas, 472 Mass. 439, 447, 35 N.E.3d 349 (2015) (protective search of car permitted before allowing defendant to reenter); Commonwealth v. Daniel, 464 Mass. 746, 752, 985 N.E.2d 843...

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3 practice notes
  • Commonwealth v. Garcia, 20-P-366
    • United States
    • Appeals Court of Massachusetts
    • 23 Julio 2021
    ...Mass. 716, 722 (2019). The test is an objective one that is based on the totality of the circumstances. See Commonwealth v. Monell, 99 Mass.App.Ct. 487, 489 (2021). "[I]t does not take much for a police officer to establish a reasonable basis to justify an exit order or search based on safe......
  • Commonwealth v. Garcia, 20-P-366
    • United States
    • Appeals Court of Massachusetts
    • 23 Julio 2021
    ...Mass. 716, 722 (2019). The test is an objective one that is based on the totality of the circumstances. See Commonwealth v. Monell, 99 Mass. App. Ct. 487, 489 (2021). "[I]t does not take much for a police officer to establish a reasonable basis to justify an exit order or search based on sa......
  • Morris v. Commonwealth, SJC-13084
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • 25 Mayo 2021
    ...intent to commit a felony, in violation of G. L. c. 266, § 16 ; and assault and battery on a family or household member, in violation 168 N.E.3d 819 of G. L. c. 265, § 13M (a ). On the basis that the various incidents that led to the charges are interconnected, involved the same victim, and......
3 cases
  • Commonwealth v. Garcia, 20-P-366
    • United States
    • Appeals Court of Massachusetts
    • 23 Julio 2021
    ...Mass. 716, 722 (2019). The test is an objective one that is based on the totality of the circumstances. See Commonwealth v. Monell, 99 Mass.App.Ct. 487, 489 (2021). "[I]t does not take much for a police officer to establish a reasonable basis to justify an exit order or search based on safe......
  • Commonwealth v. Garcia, 20-P-366
    • United States
    • Appeals Court of Massachusetts
    • 23 Julio 2021
    ...Mass. 716, 722 (2019). The test is an objective one that is based on the totality of the circumstances. See Commonwealth v. Monell, 99 Mass. App. Ct. 487, 489 (2021). "[I]t does not take much for a police officer to establish a reasonable basis to justify an exit order or search based on sa......
  • Morris v. Commonwealth, SJC-13084
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • 25 Mayo 2021
    ...intent to commit a felony, in violation of G. L. c. 266, § 16 ; and assault and battery on a family or household member, in violation 168 N.E.3d 819 of G. L. c. 265, § 13M (a ). On the basis that the various incidents that led to the charges are interconnected, involved the same victim, and......

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