Massachusetts Appeals Court Reverses District Court Judge’s Suppression of Gun Discovered in a Car’s Trunk

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed a Springfield District Court judge’s ruling that the police acted unlawfully in searching a backpack found in the trunk of a car in which the defendant was riding.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Crowley-Chester

The defendant was charged with carrying a firearm without a license and possession of a firearm or ammunition without a firearm identification card following an interaction with Springfield police officers on March 15, 2011.  At approximate 3:00 a.m., officers noticed a car legally parked next to a vacant lot (located in a high-crime area) with its lights off and its engine running.  The officers shined their cruiser’s spotlight toward the car and saw two occupants sitting inside.  The defendant, who was sitting in the passenger’s seat, slouched down and appeared to conceal a dark object (later determined to be a glove) with his hand.  Officers ordered the defendant and the driver to stay still and show their hands.  After seeing a folding-blade knife in the center cup holder, the officers ordered the defendant and the driver to get out of the car.  When the driver exited the vehicle, he dropped an object that appeared to be crack cocaine and was arrested.  The driver asked the officers to allow the defendant to take custody of the car, but the defendant did not have a driver’s license.  Despite the car being lawfully parked, the police decided to tow it.  As part of its towing policy, the police conducted an “inventory search” of the car and found the defendant’s backpack in the trunk.  A loaded handgun was inside of the backpack.

The district court judge found that the search was unconstitutional because it was not “necessary” for the police to tow and inventory the car.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Appeals Court reversed the district court judge’s ruling.  The Appeals Court began its analysis by ruling that the district court judge had applied an incorrect legal standard.  The question was not whether it was “necessary” for the police to tow the car, but rather whether it was “reasonable” for the police to tow the car.  Because the Appeals Court found that the impoundment, towing, and inventory of the car was reasonable, the gun will be admissible against the defendant at his trial.

The Appeals Court ruled that impoundment of the vehicle in this case was justified for two reasons: (1) it was reasonable to believe, based on the actions of the defendant and the driver, that there might be drugs and weapons in the vehicle that would pose a danger to the public; and (2) leaving the car where it was found (in a dangerous neighborhood with a history of criminal activity) could result in its vandalism.

Of course, the Court’s reasoning could be applied to nearly every vehicle that is lawfully parked in any inner city within the Commonwealth.  While appellate courts have made it clear that inventory searches may not be investigative in nature, if  police officers reasonably believe that contraband will be discovered in cars, they will be entitled to search under the public safety justification.  The line of cases related to inventory searches makes it very dangerous for people to be in cars that contain contraband.