Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Warrantless Seizure of Car in Murder Investigation

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld the Boston Police Department’s warrantless seizure of a car that was potentially connected to a murder on Christmas Day of 2013.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Holness

During the early morning hours of December 25, 2013, Boston police officers received word that a person had been shot at a house party in Dorchester.  By the time the cops arrived at the party, the shooting victim had died.  Six minutes after receiving the 911 call regarding the shooting, the police were dispatched to an intersection about half a mile away to investigate a report of gunshots.  Officers found an abandoned Jaguar and an abandoned Kia that appeared to have been involved in an accident.  Both cars were sitting in the travel lane of the road.  At some point, the defendant approached one of the officers and asked if he could retrieve his phone from the Jaguar.  The cop said no and shooed him away.  Meanwhile, the police learned about a second gunshot victim who had been shot in the hand and was seeking treatment at the hospital.  The victim told the police she had been at the party where the murder occurred and was leaving in a Camry with five other people when a gunman shot into the vehicle and hit her.  The victim said the gunman was in a car that matched the description of the Jaguar.

The cops concluded the car accident was tied to the two shootings and decided to tow the Jaguar to the police station.  The defendant went to the station later in the day and identified himself as the owner.  He was told the car was being held until the conclusion of the investigation.  The next day the police obtained a warrant to search the car.  During the search, officers seized numerous items, including two shell casings.  The defendant was charged with murdering the victim in the house and shooting the victim in the car.  A jury acquitted him of murder but convicted him of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and unlawful possession of a gun.

On appeal, the defendant argued the police unconstitutionally seized his car and his motion to suppress should have been allowed by the trial court.  The Appeals Court disagreed.  While the police ordinarily need a warrant to seize private property, federal and state caselaw recognize an automobile exception to the warrant requirement.  When a car is stopped by the police or is parked in a public location, and the police have probable cause to believe contraband or evidence of a crime will be located in the car, the police have the right to seize the car and search it without a warrant.  The theory behind the rule is that cars are inherently mobile, and police officers simply don’t have time to apply for a warrant before the car might drive away.  In this case, the Appeals Court concluded that the Jaguar was probably involved in the shootings given, among other things, its proximity to the crime scene.  Therefore, it was proper for the police to tow the Jaguar to the police station prior to obtaining a warrant.