A Lowell District Court judge today allowed a defense motion to suppress a gun found in the car in which our client was riding. Unless the Commonwealth decides to appeal the judge’s ruling, the case will be dismissed. Attorney Chris Spring argued the motion.
Our client was the front-seat passenger in a Kia Spectra that was being driven in Lowell. A police officer noticed that one of the car’s front headlights was not working. The officer pulled over the vehicle and had a conversation with the driver, our client, and a back-seat female passenger. The driver gave the police a false name and all of the car’s occupants appeared nervous. The police were finally able to identify the driver and our client as brothers originally from Illinois. Our client had been charged with serious crimes, including murder, in other jurisdictions. Our client allegedly told the police that he was a former gang member. Meanwhile, a different officer spoke privately to the back-seat female passenger. She told the officer that she was the driver’s girlfriend and they were returning to Lowell from an out-of-state trip. She also told the police that she didn’t know whether there were any weapons on the car, but during their trip, our client and his brother had met with someone in Connecticut, received an object, and then looked under the hood of the car.
One of the officers who responded to the scene works in the police department’s gang unit and had specialized training and experience related to gang prosecutions. At the motion to suppress hearing, the officer testified that he knows that gang members sometimes hide weapons in the engine compartments of cars. Therefore, after the driver was arrested for driving without a license, the officer popped the hood and found a gun case in the engine compartment containing a Kahr 9 millimeter handgun. Our client was charged with carrying a firearm, which carries a mandatory minimum 18-month jail sentence in Massachusetts.
We asked the judge to suppress the gun, arguing that the search of the engine compartment violated our client’s right to be free from an unreasonable search. The Commonwealth argued that the police officer was conducting an “inventory search” when he found the gun, and therefore our client’s rights were not violated. In certain situations, police officers are permitted to search cars that are in their custody. An inventory search is constitutional only if (1) the vehicle is lawfully in the custody of the police; (2) the police department has a standard, written policy that states the rules and guidelines related to such inventory searches; (3) the search is not for investigative purposes; and (4) the search is reasonable under all of the circumstances. In our client’s case, the car was lawfully in police custody. When the driver was not able to produce a valid license, and nobody was able or willing to identify the owner, the car was essentially abandoned. Therefore, the police officers had the legal right to take custody of the car. The police in our case also satisfied the second element, as the department has a written policy that relates to inventory searches. However, the judge ruled that the search of the engine compartment was investigative and therefore in violation of the inventory policy. The ruling was based on the testimony of the police officer who had expertise in dealing with gangs. The officer admitted during the hearing that he was searching for weapons in the engine compartment. His hunch turned out to be correct, but he lacked the legal authority to search the engine compartment without a search warrant.
This case illustrates the importance of aggressively litigating pretrial motions to dismiss and suppress evidence. Many drug and gun cases involve police officers’ seizure of contraband without search warrants. An experienced criminal defense attorney will carefully examine the facts of the case to determine whether his clients’ constitutional rights have been violated.