Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Suppression of Gun Following Illegal Search of Car by State Police

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today affirmed a district court judge’s order that a gun found in the defendant’s car be suppressed, as the search by state troopers violated the defendant’s constitutional rights.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Meneide.

The defendant was driving a small four-door sedan in Brockton after dark on October 29, 2013.  He was alone in the car.  Three state troopers were driving in an unmarked cruiser when they spotted the defendant commit a minor traffic infraction.  The troopers began following the defendant, who slowly drove through a residential area and apartment complex while talking on his call phone and looking from side to side.  When the defendant turned right at a red light without coming to a full stop first, the troopers pulled him over.  The defendant lifted his butt off the seat six inches and the troopers described his action as being consistent with putting his hand under his butt (so as to conceal contraband).  The troopers approached the defendant, who was calm and polite and able to produce his license.  The defendant was not holding anything in his hands and there were no suspicious items in the front seat.  However, the car reeked of unburnt marijuana and air fresheners.  The defendant admitted he had “a little weed” and the troopers ordered him to exit the car to be pat frisked.  The defendant appeared to become nervous but complied with the order.  The troopers found two small packets of marijuana in the defendant’s clothes, but because the marijuana weighed less than an ounce, its possession by the defendant was a civil offense rather than a crime.  While the defendant was out of the car, one of the troopers searched its interior.  The trooper found nothing of note in the area of the driver’s seat and nothing around the back driver’s side seat.  However, when the trooper searched a center armrest in the back seat of the car, he found a gun.  The troopers said the arm rest was within the defendant’s “wing span.”  The defendant admitted the gun was his and he carried it for protection.  He was charged with carrying a firearm.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing the police violated his rights by ordering him to exit the car, pat frisking his clothes, and searching the interior of the car.  Following a hearing, a district court judge ruled the troopers were warranted in ordering the defendant out of the car and pat frisking him because they had valid safety concerns (given that the defendant appeared to lift his butt and possibly hide something underneath him).  However, the district court judge determined that after the troopers failed to locate contraband (other than a non-criminal amount of marijuana) on the defendant’s person, they should have allowed him to leave.  Accordingly, the search of the car was unconstitutional and the gun should be suppressed.

The Appeals Court agreed with the district court judge that the troopers were warranted in ordering the defendant to get out of the car.  Exit orders are permissible whenever a police officer reasonably believes his or her safety is in danger.  Even small motions by a driver or passenger (such as the defendant lifting his butt off the seat) ordinarily justify an exit order.  The question is whether the troopers here were justified in searching the center armrest in the backseat.  The Appeals Court concluded that while a search of the seat in which the defendant was sitting was appropriate, it was impermissible for the troopers to expand the scope of the search into the back seat.  While an officer can perform a “protective search” of areas where the defendant could gain access to a gun, Massachusetts cases have required there be some connection between the defendant and the area to be searched (for example, if the defendant had reached toward the glove compartment, the troopers could have opened it and looked inside).  In this case, because there was no connection between the defendant’s movements and the back seat armrest, it was unconstitutional for the troopers to search in that area of the car.  Therefore, the gun cannot be admitted against the defendant and the gun charge against him will be dismissed.

This is a really good, defense-friendly ruling which easily could have gone the other way.  It also illustrates how profoundly the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana has affected search and seizure jurisprudence in Massachusetts.  Before the Legislature changed the marijuana statute, the troopers would have been permitted to search the entire car just by smelling weed.