Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Limits Police Powers During Traffic Stops

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday ruled a police officer cannot prolong an ordinary traffic stop to investigate an unrelated suspected crime unless the officer can articulate specific facts that suggest the crime has been committed.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Cordero

One February evening in 2015, a state trooper started following the defendant’s car as it drove on the Mass Pike in Lee.  The defendant’s car had broken brake and tail lights, and the windows appeared to be illegally tinted.  As the trooper followed the defendant for about five miles, he used his cruiser computer to confirm that: the defendant was the registered owner of the car; the defendant had a valid license; the car was properly insured and inspected; and that the defendant was not the subject of warrants or open criminal cases.  The trooper also learned the defendant lived in Holyoke and had been previously convicted of crimes, including drug crimes for which he served jail sentences.  The trooper finally pulled over the defendant’s car and asked where the defendant was coming from and where he was going.  The defendant, who appeared nervous, gave vague answers that the trooper did not believe.  The defendant was able to provide his license but couldn’t locate his registration.  The trooper accused the defendant of being involved in drug activity and asked if he could search the car.  The defendant refused to consent to a search.

Meanwhile, a second trooper arrived on the scene.  When the passenger in the defendant’s car also looked nervous and gave statements about his recent whereabouts that conflicted with the defendant’s, the cops made arrangements for a drug-sniffing dog to report to the scene.  The defendant and his passenger asked to wait in the cruiser to avoid the cold weather, and the troopers said they could wait in the cruiser if they submitted to a patfrisk and were handcuffed first.  The men agreed and were placed in the back of the cruiser.  Eventually a Pittsfield cop showed up and asked the defendant three times if he would consent to a search of his car’s trunk.  According to the cop, on the third request, the defendant gave permission for the search.  The cops located 2,000 bags of heroin in the trunk and the defendant was charged with drug trafficking.  He filed a motion to suppress the drugs, arguing the cops had illegally detained him before searching his car.  A superior court judge denied the defendant’s motion and he appealed.  The Supreme Judicial Court reversed.

The SJC reviewed the rule that a routine traffic stop cannot last longer than reasonably necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop.  As soon as the traffic violation has been properly addressed, the defendant must be permitted to drive away unless the cop has reasonable suspicion to believe one of the car’s occupants is involved in criminal activity.  In this case, the trooper had the constitutional authority to investigate the defendant’s broken tail and brake lights, along with the excessive window tint.  After the trooper addressed those issues, however, he did not allow the defendant to drive away.  Instead, the trooper began to investigate whether the defendant was involved in illegal drug activity.  The Commonwealth argued the trooper had reasonable suspicion to believe the defendant was involved in something illegal because he seemed nervous and gave evasive answers to the trooper’s questions.  The Court said such conduct did not rise to the level of reasonable suspicion.  Other information that the trooper learned about the defendant, including his hometown (which the trooper described as being a “major drug source city”) and his record of criminal convictions also did not establish reasonable suspicion that he was involved in anything illegal on the date in question.  Therefore, it was illegal for the trooper to have continued to detain the defendant after the traffic investigation was finished, and the drugs found in the trunk were ordered suppressed.  As a result, the defendant will walk away from a case that would have carried a mandatory minimum state prison sentence.