Springfield officer backed in rights case

Court says he acted correctly in detaining lawyer

By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / December 26, 2009

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A Springfield police officer did not violate the civil rights of a well-known local criminal defense lawyer by pointing a handgun at him outside a courthouse and placing him in a cruiser after spotting a gun beneath the attorney’s suit jacket, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld a lower court ruling that a veteran Springfield patrolman, J.B. Stern, acted properly in July 2006 after he saw Gregory T. Schubert with a firearm outside Hampden County Superior Court.

Schubert had a license to carry the gun and was released without charges after about 10 minutes, but he claimed the detention violated his rights, humiliated him in public, and traumatized him.

The three-member appeals court panel said Stern was right to act as he did.

“The officer observed Schubert walking toward the Springfield courthouse carrying a gun,’’ the panel said in its ruling Wednesday. “This simple, undisputed fact provided a sufficient basis for Stern’s concern that Schubert may have been about to commit a serious act, or, at the very least, was openly carrying a firearm without a license to do so.’’

The panel also rejected Schubert’s argument that his age and appearance made Stern’s suspicions unreasonable. Schubert is now 62 and was wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase as he headed to an afternoon court hearing.

Kevin B. Coyle, a Springfield lawyer for the patrol officers’ union who defended Stern in the suit, said his client did not recognize the lawyer, even though Schubert has been involved in several prominent criminal cases. Schubert at one point represented Jason Strickland, Haleigh Poutre’s stepfather, who was convicted last year of abusing the girl and sentenced to 12 to 15 years in state prison.

“All [Stern] knew was that he saw somebody with a gun, which was exposed when the coat hung open as he was walking to the courthouse,’’ Coyle said.

Schubert declined to comment on the ruling except to say he will speak with his lawyer, Alan J. Black of Springfield, about whether to seek further appellate review.

The incident happened on July 21, 2006, in what is considered a high-crime area in Springfield, said the appeals court panel.

Stern said he was sitting in a police cruiser near the courthouse when he spotted Schubert with a gun under his unbuttoned jacket, said the ruling. Stern said several passersby also noticed the gun and gestured to alert the officer. However, an internal affairs police inquiry could not corroborate that claim, said the ruling.

Schubert, who has practiced law for about 30 years, said the officer leaped from his cruiser in a “dynamic and explosive’’ manner, pointed his service weapon in the lawyer’s face, and ordered him to raise his hands, said the ruling. The officer reached inside Schubert’s jacket and seized the loaded weapon. Schubert showed the officer his “Class A’’ gun license, which indicated he was a lawyer. But the officer placed him in the back of the cruiser and told him he might be charged.

The officer radioed the Police Department to determine whether Schubert had a valid license to carry a gun, said the ruling. But after several minutes without an answer, Stern told Schubert he was free to go but said the lawyer would have to pick up his gun at the police station after authorities verified the license.

After Schubert filed a citizen’s complaint against Stern, the Springfield police commissioner recommended that the officer be retrained on state firearms law but “found no specific wrongdoing’’ and recommended no disciplinary action, said the appeals court ruling.

Coyle said the retraining reflected no deficiencies on Stern’s part and was “just a review.’’

District Court Judge Michael A. Ponsor ruled in favor of Stern in March, granting summary judgment and dismissing the federal claims against the city.

Saltzman can be reached at