Collective Knowledge Doctrine – Law Office of William J. Barabino

Thanks to the Constitution, people have privacy rights that protect them from searches by police that are unreasonable. For example, in order for police to search your home they are almost always going to be required to have first obtained a search warrant. The basic idea is that a search is unreasonable if police do not have enough reasons to believe you have committed a crime (or are committing one) before they invade your privacy.

There is a huge amount of case law on what makes a search unreasonable and because of this many different issues have come up. One issue worth discussing is called collective police knowledge. Collective police knowledge is a legal doctrine that helps determine when the suspicions of one police officer carry over to other police officers investigating a crime at the same time.

The idea is pretty abstract, but a recent case decided by the highest court in Massachusetts helps illustrate it. The case also announced a new legal rule that will impact the rights of everyone stopped by the police.

What happened in the case?

In Commonwealth v. Privette, an undercover police officer was working a late-night shift in Boston when he received a dispatch that an armed robbery had just occurred at a gas station in Dorchester. The dispatcher described the suspect as a “Black male, late twenties, five foot seven, blue hoodie, blue jeans, on foot” running toward a pharmacy. There was no mention of the suspect having facial hair but additional dispatch information described him as having some. Less than 10 minutes after the dispatch, the officer spotted a person he believed matched the description.

The suspect, David Privette, complied with the officer’s command to show his hands. He was pat-frisked and over $400 in cash was found in his wallet, although no weapon was discovered. Another officer arrived soon after and conducted a pat-frisk on Privette’s red backpack. He felt a hard object, opened it, and found a gun.

After the victim positively identified Privette as the perpetrator, he was arrested and indicted on five firearms offenses.

How did Privette defend the case?

After obtaining a defense attorney, Privette’s lawyer filed a motion to suppress. A motion to suppress is a method of challenging evidence believed to have been obtained by police unlawfully. Specifically, his lawyer argued that stopping Privette and the two pat-frisks were unlawful. The basis was that there was a lack of reasonable suspicion to conduct these investigative activities.

What is reasonable suspicion?

Police cannot stop a person unless they have reasonable suspicion that the person stopped has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. As many courts have said, reasonable suspicion “must be based on specific and articulable facts, and reasonable inferences therefrom, in light of the officer’s experience.” In plain English: Police cannot stop a person unless their suspicion is reasonable based on the facts of the situation.

The specific fact issue in Privette was whether the first officer had reasonable suspicion to stop Privette based on the information he knew at that time. To determine this, the court had to apply the collective police knowledge doctrine.

How does collective police knowledge work?

The collective police knowledge doctrine gives police officers an exception to the amount of knowledge they need to conduct a search or make an arrest. Put another way, police do not need to have firsthand knowledge. They can rely on the information collectively gathered by their police officer colleagues.

In Massachusetts, there are two types of collective police knowledge:

  • Vertical collective knowledge: one police officer directs another to conduct a stop, frisk, search, or arrest. For example, there is vertical collective knowledge when Sergeant X instructs Patrol Officer Y to frisk a suspect.
  • Horizontal collective knowledge: the information “the police have” consists of the information each of the individual officers have. For example, there is horizontal collective knowledge if Officer X, Officer Y, and Officer Z all have information that together is enough for reasonable suspicion, even if the information any of the individual officers have alone would not be enough.

This case focused on horizontal collective knowledge. The legal issue was whether horizontal collective knowledge was too broad. In other words, as the law was then-defined was it not giving people enough privacy protections?

How did the Court decide the case?

The Court first settled the legal issue. It determined that horizontal collective knowledge needed to be narrowed as a legal doctrine. The Court ruled that certain new requirements needed to be met for horizonal collective knowledge to apply. These include:

  • The officers need to be involved in a joint investigation
  • The officers must be pursuing “a mutual purpose and objective”
  • The officers must be in close and continuous communication with each other about that shared objective

Importantly, the officer must be aware of at least some of the “critical facts” and must be in communication with other officers who have this knowledge.

Applying this rule to fact issue of the Privette case, the Court concluded that the knowledge of the second officer could carry over to the first. There was a joint investigation and the second officer continuously updated his colleagues about his observations while he was looking for the suspect.

From everything the first officer knew himself and through the second, the Court held that there was reasonable suspicion. The searches were lawful. The motion to suppress should have been denied. That’s what the lower court did so the decision was upheld.

Why is Privette important?

Privette is not an easy case to understand, but it is certainly an important one.

Although the defendant lost, Privette is important because it increases privacy rights. The legal rule of the case requires more out of police when they want to rely on collective knowledge as justification for a stop and frisk. The new standard means police need to communicate better and more clearly with each other when they want to take action. This helps protect the privacy rights of all of us.



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