Can the Police Automatically Search My Belongings if my Car is Being Towed in Massachusetts?

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld a district court judge’s ruling that Boston police officers unlawfully searched an arrestee’s backpack that was found in the back of his car that was about to be towed.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Nicoleau

In September of 2014, two Boston cops noticed the defendant driving a car with a defective headlight.  The cops also learned the car was uninsured and its registration and license plates were invalid.  The officers attempted to stop the defendant, but he continued to drive to his grandmother’s house, where he finally parked the car.  The police arrested the defendant for failing to stop and committing the motor vehicle infractions.  Meanwhile, the defendant’s grandmother came outside to talk to the police.  The cops told the grandmother they were impounding the car since it was uninsured and unregistered (and was therefore not permitted to remain on a public street).  The defendant had several items in the car, including a backpack, a music player, and his keys.  The grandmother agreed to take possession of these items and the cops gave her the music player and the keys.  However, instead of turning over the backpack, the police decided to open it.  The officers found a knife and the defendant was charged with carrying a dangerous weapon.  Once in court, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the knife, arguing that the police did not have the constitutional authority to open his backpack.  A district court judge agreed and allowed the motion to suppress.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Appeals Court affirmed.

There was no question in this case that the police were justified in impounding the car (which means having a tow company bring the car to either a police tow yard or a commercial tow lot).  A vehicle that is not properly registered cannot remain on a public road in Massachusetts.  In many cases when the police impound a car, officers are also permitted to conduct an inventory of all of the items in the car.  An inventory involves a search of all of the property inside a vehicle.  The law allows for such a search for several reasons.  First, it is designed to prevent baseless accusations against the police for stealing the contents of a car.  Second, it is intended to document the owner’s possessory interest in the property.  Third, it ensures there are no dangerous items in the car that could injure the police or members of the public.  An inventory search is not based on probable cause that a crime has been committed and is not related in any way to a criminal investigation.  The police are only entitled to search those pieces of property that will accompany the vehicle to the tow yard.  The question in this case was whether the police had discretion to search the backpack under the guise of an inventory procedure when the defendant’s grandmother was standing by to take possession of the property.  The Appeals Court said no – where there is a practical and available alternative to the property accompanying the vehicle to the tow yard, the police are required to choose that alternative.  Therefore, the search of the defendant’s backpack in this case was unconstitutional and the knife will be suppressed, resulting in the dismissal of the weapons charges.