Today the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its opinion in Commonwealth v. Garner (SJC-13103). Chief Justice Budd, writing for a unanimous court, upheld the suppression order in Mr. Garner’s case, reversing a panel of the Massachusetts Appeals Court and rejecting the prosecution’s uncredited facts.
In 2017, Mr. Garner, a Black man, was stopped by three gang unit state troopers in an unmarked car for civil motor vehicle infractions. One of the troopers had stopped him four times before, and had arrested him for gun possession six years earlier. However, the repeated recent stops had yielded no contraband and no criminal charges except one instance of driving on a suspended license. Mr. Garner seemed nervous but answered questions, complied with instructions, volunteered consent to search the car, exited upon request, stepped back from the car, and called out for a friend. However, the police officers decided, based on unsupported “training and experience,” that Mr. Garner was likely in “fight or flight” mode and decided to swiftly patfrisk him.
After supporting Further Appellate Review, which the Court granted, we partnered with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the Massachusetts Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the New England Innocence Project on an amicus brief urging today’s outcome. Congratulations to defense attorney Brian A. Kelley on this win and to Mr. Earl “Bradley” Garner, whose freedom no longer hangs in the balance.
The opinion is a full-throated reaffirmation of the Court’s 2020 decision in Torres-Pagan, which emphasized that officers must have a reasonable suspicion based on specific, articulable facts that a person is armed and dangerous in order to engage in the “serious intrusion” of a patfrisk on a person’s body. Chief Justice Budd explained,
. . . we unanimously agree with the judge’s conclusion that the defendant’s seemingly uncharacteristic behavior did not raise a reasonable inference that he was armed and dangerous. The judge did not credit the troopers’ “speculat[ive]” testimony “about the defendant’s thoughts” and flatly rejected as unreasonable the proffered inference that the defendant might take “flight or fight” where it was unsupported by objective facts.
Further, C.J. Budd wrote that Mr. Garner’s “somewhat stale criminal record” (a six-year-old gun possession conviction) added little weight. Chief Justice Budd’s unanimous opinion carefully parses the motion judge’s findings, declines to adopt the prosecutor’s escalated and embellished version of events, and distinguishes the Court’s recent, deeply divided and widely rebuked majority in the Zahkuan Bailey-Sweeting case.
Read the Garner opinion: