The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed a district court judge’s ruling that a police officer lacked constitutional authority to stop a car where the passenger was hanging out of the passenger’s side window. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Kaplan.
At just past midnight on October 27, 2018, an Amherst police officer saw the defendant driving through the parking lot of the town hall. The front-seat passenger had her chest sticking out of the window and she was yelling while hanging onto the roof. The defendant then pulled out of the parking lot and started driving on Main Street, where the cop stopped the car. During the ensuing investigation, the officer came to believe the defendant was under the influence of alcohol. She was charged with OUI-alcohol; negligent operation of a motor vehicle; and unsafe operation of a motor vehicle. She filed a motion to suppress her stop, arguing that the cop lacked reasonable suspicion or probable cause to pull her over. An Eastern Hampshire District Court judge agreed and allowed the motion to suppress. The Commonwealth appealed and the Appeals Court reversed.
In order to stop the car, the police officer needed to at least have reasonable suspicion that the defendant had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime. The Commonwealth argued there was reasonable suspicion to believe the defendant was operating her vehicle recklessly or negligently – in order to prove the case, the prosecutor would have to prove the defendant’s operation might have caused the lives or safety of the public to be endangered. Negligent operation does not require the driver to operate erratically, so long as the conduct taken as a whole might have endangered the public. The Appeals Court concluded that the defendant’s decision to drive while her passenger was hanging out of the window and yelling might have endangered the lives and safety of the public because the passenger was necessarily blocking the defendant’s view. The defendant would not have been able to look through the passenger’s side window (or at the side view mirror), and it was therefore dangerous for the defendant to have driven. The Court pointed out that other drivers would also have been distracted by the defendant allowing her passenger to hang out of the car while driving, which provided an independent source of reasonable suspicion for the cop to stop the car.
Ultimately, according to the Appeals Court, the defendant’s car also could have been properly stopped because the passenger was committing a civil motor vehicle infraction by holding onto the outside of a moving car. There is a Massachusetts statute that states no person other than a firefighter or a garbage collector is permitted to hang onto the outside of a moving vehicle. The defendant argued the statute does not apply to her passenger’s conduct, because the bottom part of her body was still in the car. The Court declined to rule that a person’s whole body needs to be outside the car in order to constitute a violation. Because the passenger was using her hands to hang onto the outside of a moving car, it was proper for the cop to conduct a motor vehicle stop. The case will now be returned to the trial court and the defendant will be prosecuted for operating under the influence of alcohol.