After Dartmouth Cops Conduct Unconstitutional Search, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Suppresses Gun Found in Car

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday upheld a district court judge’s order suppressing a gun found during a police search of a car in a department store parking lot.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Oliveira

In March of 2013, the two defendants were allegedly stealing merchandise from a department store in Dartmouth.  A loss prevention officer detained the men and called the police.  The police arrived and asked how the defendants traveled to the store.  One of the men said he had driven a car registered to his girlfriend (who was not present).  The police verified the vehicle was registered to the defendant’s girlfriend and was lawfully parked in a marked space in the department store’s lot.  The cops arrested the defendants for shoplifting (a crime that carries a maximum penalty of a fine) and said they were going to conduct an inventory search of the car and then tow it away.  The defendant who had been driving told the police he wanted to have his girlfriend pick up the car instead of having it towed.  The police ignored the driver’s request and searched the car, finding a loaded gun in the unlocked glove compartment.  The defendants were each charged with illegal possession of a firearm, which carries a mandatory minimum 18-month jail sentence upon conviction.

The defendants filed a motion to suppress the gun and a district court judge allowed the motion.  While concluding the police followed the department’s written inventory policy in executing the search, the judge ruled the seizure of the vehicle immediately before the search was unreasonable.  Because the seizure of the vehicle was unreasonable, the subsequent search was unconstitutional.  The Commonwealth appealed the district court judge’s ruling and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.

The SJC agreed with the reasoning of the district court judge.  The Court noted that because an inventory search is conducted without first obtaining a warrant, the Commonwealth is tasked with proving the constitutionality of the search.  The first question is whether it was reasonable for the police to seize the car.  In determining reasonableness, judges are required to consider whether the vehicle’s seizure was necessary to: (1) protect the car and any items inside from vandalism or theft; (2) protect members of the public from dangerous objects that could be inside the car; (3) protect the public when the car is parked in a dangerous location; or (4) protect a property owner from having to pay to tow the vehicle from his private property.  In this case, the defendant’s request that his girlfriend be permitted to come and pick up the car was practical and lawful, and it should have been granted.  Further, because the defendant was charged with a crime that only carried a fine as potential punishment, it is likely he would have been released from the police station after booking and would have been able to retrieve the car himself.  The car’s spot in the parking lot was safe and it was unlikely to have been vandalized.  Further, it did not pose a danger to members of the public.  Because there was no justification for seizing the car, the Dartmouth cops’ conduct was unreasonable and the search was unconstitutional.  Accordingly, the gun that was found is a “fruit of the poisonous tree” and cannot be admitted against the defendants in court.  As a result, the gun charges will be dismissed.

This case illustrates the importance of aggressively litigating motions to suppress evidence.  The defense attorneys’ good work saved their clients from having to sit in jail for 18 months.