Massachusetts Appeals Court Reverses Brockton Drug Conviction Following Unconstitutional Search of Car

A sharply-divided panel of the Massachusetts Appeals Court today voted 3-2 to reverse a district court judge’s denial of a defendant’s motion to suppress evidence following a search of his car during a traffic stop.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Darosa

At just past 10 p.m. one evening, Brockton police officers were following the defendant’s minivan in their unmarked cruiser.  After watching the defendant change lanes without using his signal, the officers pulled him over.  Upon request, the defendant was able to produce the car’s registration but said he did not have a license.  The cops checked his identifying information with dispatch and learned his driver’s license had been suspended and he had a criminal history that involved drug cases.  After discovering the defendant’s license was suspended, the cops ordered him to get out of the car.  They patfrisked the defendant and ordered him to sit on the curb near the back of the minivan.  One of the officers guarded the defendant while the others searched the van’s passenger compartments.  During the search, the cops smelled fresh marijuana and fabric softener (which is often used to cover up the smell of drugs).  A significant amount of money was also discovered under the front passenger seat.  A K-9 unit was requested and the dog found a large bag of marijuana in the rear compartment of the van.  The defendant was charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.  He filed a motion to suppress the drugs, arguing the search of his van was unconstitutional.  A district court judge denied his motion and he was found guilty at trial.  He appealed, and the Appeals Court reversed, concluding his motion to suppress should have been allowed.

Once the police observed the defendant change lanes without using his signal, they had the right to pull him over.  And once the officers learned the defendant did not have a valid driver’s license, they had the right to either arrest him, or let him go and summons him to court at a later date.  In this case, the cops didn’t immediately arrest the defendant, and instead decided to search his van.  However, there was no constitutional justification for the search.  The Commonwealth argued the officers’ conduct was proper as a search incident to arrest.  The first problem with the Commonwealth’s argument was that the defendant was not under arrest at the time of the search.  While a search sometimes qualifies as incident to arrest even when it happens prior to the formal arrest, the search and the arrest must be “substantially contemporaneous.”  In this case, the defendant was not arrested until after the initial search by the police, and a second, more invasive search by the K-9 unit.  Because the search was not substantially contemporaneous with the defendant’s arrest, it was not incident to his arrest.  Further, in a case named Arizona v. Gant, the United States Supreme Court ruled the police may search a vehicle incident to an occupant’s arrest only if: (1) the person being arrested is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment (and could, therefore, grab a weapon that is in the vehicle); or (2) it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime being charged might be found in the vehicle.  In this case, the Appeals Court concluded neither of these two circumstances were present.  At the time of the search, the defendant was sitting on the curb near the back of the van and was being guarded by an officer, so he was not in a position to grab anything inside the passenger compartment.  And the police could not have reasonably believed a search would yield evidence of the crime – driving with a suspended license – that that defendant was known to be committing.

The two dissenting justices asserted it was appropriate for the cops to conduct a protective sweep of the vehicle to ensure there were no weapons present.  However, for now, the defendant’s conviction was reversed and it is unlikely the Commonwealth will have enough evidence to put him on trial again (now that the drugs have been suppressed).  The Commonwealth will likely ask the Supreme Judicial Court to review the Appeals Court’s decision.  If the SJC agrees to take the case, it will have the final word on whether the police conduct in this case was constitutional.