Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Fixes Appeals Court’s Erroneous Inventory Search Ruling

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday reversed a terrible Appeals Court decision regarding the unconstitutional inventory search of a car in which the defendant was riding.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Crowley-Chester

In the middle of the night on March 15, 2011, Springfield cops saw a Honda Accord parked on the street in front of a vacant lot.  The car’s lights were off but its engine was running.  There were two people in the car, including the defendant who was sitting in the front passenger seat.  After observing an unknown object in the defendant’s hand and a knife in the center console, an officer ordered the driver to get out of the car.  As he exited, the driver dropped what appeared to be crack cocaine on the ground and was promptly arrested.  Following the orders of the cops, the defendant also got out of the car.  The driver asked the police to allow the defendant to drive the car away, but the officers determined the defendant did not have a driver’s license.  Accordingly, the police decided to impound the car.  During the subsequent search of the vehicle, the cops found the defendant’s backpack in the trunk, which contained a gun.  The defendant was arrested and charged with illegal possession of a firearm.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the gun, arguing the police had improperly taken custody of, and searched, the car.  A district court judge agreed and suppressed the gun.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Appeals Court reversed, holding the police conduct was reasonable and constitutional.  The defendant requested the Supreme Judicial Court reverse the Appeals Court and, in this opinion, the SJC ruled the district court judge had properly allowed the defendant’s motion to suppress.  Ordinarily a warrantless search of an automobile is unconstitutional.  However, an exception involves the inventory search of a vehicle.  An inventory search is constitutionally acceptable when the police properly impound a car and conduct a search to make a record of all the belongings therein.  The question in this case was whether it was appropriate for the police to impound the car.  The Commonwealth argued impoundment was necessary because the car was parked in a “high-crime” area in the middle of the night and by leaving the car where it was, there was a risk it would be stolen or vandalized.  However, the defendant introduced police records at the hearing establishing there had been only one motor vehicle-related crime in the area during the six months prior to the defendant’s arrest.  Further, the driver had chosen to park the car in the spot where the police found it, and it was legally parked on a city street (along with other vehicles).  It was therefore not reasonably necessary for the police to impound the car to protect it from theft or vandalism.  The Court also ruled there was insufficient evidence to establish the cops needed to impound the car in order to protect the public (although a knife was recovered from the center console, there was nothing to suggest there were additional weapons in the car).

With the gun being suppressed, the Commonwealth will be forced to dismiss the case and the defendant will be spared an 18-month jail sentence.