Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Refuses to Wade into Pretextual Stop Quagmire

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reaffirmed the principle that a police officer may stop a car for a motor vehicle infraction, despite the officer’s true motive for stopping the car.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Buckley.

In January of 2013, Whitman police officers were conducting surveillance on an apartment building where drug activity was likely afoot.  One evening, the cops saw a vehicle stop nearby and its two occupants exit the car and enter the building.  When the same two individuals returned to the car and drove away without turning the headlights on and at a rate higher than the speed limit, the cops decided to stop the vehicle to investigate the occupants for participating in illegal drug activity.  When the officers stopped the car, they smelled a strong odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle.  The cops ordered the occupants to exit and when the passenger got out of the car, the officers saw a gun under the front passenger seat.  The occupants were arrested and drugs were later found at the scene.  The defendant filed a motion to suppress all evidence seized by the police, arguing the stop of the car had violated his constitutional right to be free of an unreasonable search and seizure.  The motion was denied and the defendant was ultimately convicted of possession of cocaine and sentenced to serve one year in jail.  He appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court upheld his conviction.

The most interesting issue involved the defendant’s argument that the police conducted an improper pretextual stop – that is, while the cops said they stopped the car for speeding, the true purpose of the stop was to investigate illegal drug activity.  The Supreme Judicial Court reviewed the current state of the law – that a cop is authorized to stop any car that is committing a traffic infraction.  The defendant argued that allowing a stop for a traffic infraction alone is improper, because a police officer might use a traffic infraction to stop a car when the cop is actually investigating an unrelated crime (which is allegedly what happened in this case).  Prior Massachusetts caselaw has instructed judges to consider a cop’s “objective reasonableness without regard to the underlying intent or motivation” of the cop making the traffic stop.  In other words, if there is an objective reason to justify the stop, it should be upheld.  The Court here concluded that such an approach is appropriate, essentially conceding it would be too difficult to determine whether a cop was acting in bad faith.  The SJC suggested that judges are not in a position to determine whether cops are acting in bad faith, as such questions are better handled by psychologists or philosophers than attorneys.  Accordingly, where there is a traffic violation that justifies a motor vehicle stop, the stop will be upheld as constitutional.

Justice Budd concurred in the majority opinion and agreed it would be unworkable to strike down current caselaw.  However, the concurrence correctly points out that pretextual stops disproportionately impact people of  color.  “Driving while black” is real.  It is important that trial judges closely consider the circumstances surrounding a stop while considering motions to suppress.