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Policing, Prisons, & Criminal Justice | Navigating Police Interactions | Massachusetts

Massachusetts Navigating Police Interactions Q&A

I am often told by police to “move along” from public areas. Is that legal?

Not necessarily. If the area is public and not posted as having particular hours, you generally have a right to be there as long as you are engaged in lawful activity. Public places belong to everyone, and are also often places of public accommodation to which non-discrimination rules apply. Even if a police officer wants to deter crime, or suspects some kind of unlawful intent, they have no general right to request people to move from one place to another unless there is unlawful conduct (Commonwealth v. Carpenter, 325 Mass. 519, 521 (1950) (sauntering and loitering in public places is right of every person); Benefit v. City of Cambridge, 424 Mass. 918 (1997) (streets and other public areas are “quintessential public forums” for expression); Kent v. Dulles, 357 U.S. 116, 126 (1958)).

What are the general rules about interaction with police?

The presence of individuals who appear to be LGBT – whether because such individuals are displaying symbols such as a rainbow flag or pink triangle or for any other reason – should not trigger any special scrutiny by a police officer.

Police may, of course, approach a person, and make inquiries, but the officer can neither explicitly nor implicitly assert that the person must respond to their inquiries (Commonwealth v. Murdough, 428 Mass. 700 (1999)). Even if a person has been convicted of a past offense, or fails to respond, or responds in a way which does not satisfy the officer, that person cannot be arrested (Murdough, 428 Mass. at 703; Alegata v. Commonwealth, 353 Mass. 287, 300-01, 231 N.E.2d 201 (1967)).

If an officer has “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed, they may briefly detain an individual, or stop the person for purposes of investigation (Murdough, 428 Mass. at 763, Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 16 (1968)). An arrest can only occur upon “probable cause” that a crime has been committed (Murdough, 428 Mass. at 703).

What can I do if I believe I have been improperly treated by the police?

Complaints may be made to any individual police department for matters concerning its officers. Call GLAD if you need to find out how to make a complaint to the local police.

Complaints to the Massachusetts State Police may be made via a Citizens Response Report, or form SP-340, which can be completed online and sent electronically (see http://www.mass.gov/eopss/agencies/msp/citizen-concerns.html for more information) or mailed to The Massachusetts State Police, Division of Standards and Training/Citizen Response Reports, 470 Worcester Road Framingham, MA  01702. An officer assigned to the Division of Standards and Training will contact you upon receipt of your report (“Citizens Response Reports,” Public Safety, http://www.mass.gov/eopss/agencies/msp/citizen-concerns.html).

Please let GLAD know whenever you make a complaint so that we can track the responsiveness of the various police departments.

In some cases, you may decide to pursue a lawsuit, either because of injuries, improper detainment, or for some other reason. These matters are highly specialized, and GLAD can make attorney referrals. People can also register serious complaints with the Attorney General’s Office, Civil Rights Division.