Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Suppression of Cocaine Discovered During Bogus Inventory Search

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today affirmed a superior court judge’s order suppressing a large amount of cocaine because the State Police improperly searched a car under the guise of an “inventory search.”  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Ortiz

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was investigating the defendant for trafficking in cocaine.  In February of 2013, DEA agents learned the defendant would be transporting a kilogram of cocaine into Boston.  The agents knew the defendant had a suspended driver’s license and was subject to arrest if he was caught driving in Massachusetts.  On the date of the transfer, the DEA requested assistance from the Massachusetts State Police in stopping the defendant’s car.  Trooper Matthew Hannigan, who was the handler of a drug-detecting dog, was instructed to locate the defendant’s car and stop it if the defendant committed any motor vehicle infractions.

DEA agents watched the defendant leave a home in Norwood carrying a backpack.  He got into a minivan with Florida license plates and drove away.  Trooper Hannigan located the defendant driving on the VFW Parkway and saw him change lanes without signaling.  The trooper stopped the car and arrested the defendant for operating with a suspended license.  The trooper then searched the car pursuant to a valid inventory policy and found the backpack the defendant had been carrying.  Inside the backpack was a package of what appeared to be cocaine, and Trooper Hannigan’s drug-sniffing dog confirmed the presence of cocaine.

Massachusetts law allows police officers to search vehicles that are being impounded under so-called inventory policies.  The purpose of inventory searches is to determine whether the vehicle contains any valuable objects that need to be safeguarded or whether there are weapons that might fall into the hands of vandals.  An inventory search must be conducted pursuant to written police policies and its goal cannot be the discovery of evidence to use in a criminal prosecution.

There was no dispute in this case that the Massachusetts State Police had a valid inventory policy allowing for the search of vehicles that were about to be impounded.  However, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the cocaine, arguing the “inventory search” was a pretext for conducting an investigatory search for the drugs.  The Commonwealth argued that because there was a valid inventory policy, the trooper’s conduct was appropriate and the cocaine should be admissible at trial.  A superior court judge agreed with the defendant’s argument and ordered that the cocaine be suppressed.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Appeals Court affirmed the superior court judge’s order of suppression.

The Appeals Court concluded the trooper’s motivation in searching the defendant’s vehicle was not to conduct an appropriate inventory, but rather to retrieve the backpack that presumably contained cocaine.  The Court pointed out the DEA requested that Trooper Hannigan stop the defendant’s car and arrest him for the sole purpose of impounding the vehicle and searching it pursuant to the State Police inventory policy.  At the motion to suppress hearing, the trooper conceded he would not ordinarily stop a car for failing to signal, and he likely would not arrest someone for operating with a suspended license (and would instead summons the driver to court on a later date).  The Appeals Court said when viewed objectively, the search of the defendant’s backpack was investigative in nature.  Because the police did not have a warrant to search the bag, the search was unconstitutional.  The conclusion that the search was investigative was further supported by the fact that Trooper Hannigan brought along his dog to alert to the presence of narcotics.

The facts of this case are interesting, as is the superior court judge’s allowance of the motion to suppress.  Many judges are reluctant to allow motions to suppress evidence, particularly in cases involving large quantities of narcotics, and the motion judge here could have used the inventory policy as a reason to deny the defendant’s motion.  The defendant was lucky to be in front of a judge willing to make a decision that, while correct, will allow a drug trafficker to go free.