Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Search of Car in Springfield that Led to Gun Charges

The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday affirmed multiple gun convictions against a defendant who had argued the cops improperly removed him from a pickup truck and then searched the center console, finding a loaded gun.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Galarza

On September 15, 2015, a state trooper saw the defendant driving a pickup truck in Springfield at 1:50 a.m.  The defendant was speeding and the truck had two equipment violations.  When the trooper stopped the truck, he saw the defendant bend forward and out of sight.  The trooper approached the driver’s side window to speak to the defendant, who appeared panicked.  The defendant was speaking on a cell phone and the trooper could hear what the person on the other end of the line was saying.  The trooper told the defendant to hang up the phone and the defendant refused, saying the person he was talking to was the owner of the truck and needed to come to the scene.  The trooper requested the defendant’s license and the truck’s registration.  The defendant provided his license but said the registration was not in the truck.  However, the trooper could hear the truck’s owner tell the defendant the registration was in the center console.  When asked by the trooper to check the center console, the defendant instead attempted to block access to it with his arm.  The trooper told the defendant to stay still and when additional officers arrived on the scene, the defendant was ordered to exit the truck and he was placed in handcuffs.  The trooper then opened the center console and found a loaded gun.  The defendant was charged with several firearms offenses, including carrying a loaded gun without a license.  After a Springfield District Court jury found him guilty, the defendant appealed.

The defendant argued on appeal that the district court judge had improperly denied his motion to suppress the gun.  The defendant had argued in the trial court, and again in the Appeals Court, that the trooper had unlawfully ordered him to exit the truck and unlawfully searched the center console.  The Appeals Court, like the district court, rejected the defendant’s suppression arguments.  A police officer is allowed to order a driver to exit his car during a roadside stop in three situations: when the officer reasonably believes his safety, or the safety of another person, is endangered; if there is reasonable suspicion to believe the driver is involved in criminal activity; and where the police have the right to search the vehicle for some other reason.  In this case, the Appeals Court ruled the trooper reasonably feared for his safety.  The defendant was stopped in a high crime area in the middle of the night and he ducked out of sight when he was pulled over.  He refused to follow the trooper’s order to end his phone call, he appeared to be very nervous, and he refused to open the center console despite knowing the registration was contained therein.  These circumstances allowed the trooper to order the defendant to exit the vehicle pursuant to the officer safety justification.  Once the defendant was properly out of the car, the cops had the right to conduct a protective sweep of the passenger compartment to ensure there were no weapons present.  It was reasonable here for the cops to believe a weapon would be present in the console given the defendant’s efforts to block access to it.