Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Clarifies Inventory Search Rules

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled a district court judge correctly suppressed a gun found by Boston police officers during an inventory search of the defendant’s car after a valid motor vehicle stop.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Goncalves-Mendez

At a little before midnight on August 4, 2016, two Boston cops watched the defendant drive his car with what appeared to be a broken brake light.  The police stopped the car on Columbia Road in Dorchester and ran a warrant check.  It was discovered that the defendant had an open arrest warrant for a case charging him with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.  The cops decided to arrest the defendant pursuant to the warrant.  Meanwhile, the defendant’s passenger provided his identification to the officers, who determined he had a valid driver’s license, was not subject to any arrest warrants, was not a suspect in other crimes, and did not seem to be drunk or high.  Once the cops arrested the defendant, they told him his car would be impounded pursuant to department policy.  The defendant did not request that his passenger be allowed to take custody of his car, and the cops did not give him that option.  Prior to impoundment, the officers performed an inventory search of the car and found a loaded gun under the driver’s seat.  The defendant acknowledged the gun was his and was ultimately charged with multiple crimes including carrying a loaded firearm.  Once the case was pending in the Boston Municipal Court, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the gun.  A district court judge allowed the motion, concluding the impoundment was unreasonable because the cops had not given the defendant the option of releasing his car to his passenger (which would have resulted in the car not being searched).  The Commonwealth appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.

If a driver of a car is arrested, the police may impound his vehicle in certain situations.  If impoundment is permissible, the police may first search the car to ensure it does not contain weapons or contraband, and to secure the driver’s property while he is in custody.  An inventory search of a vehicle is permissible only when: (1) the driver is lawfully under arrest and is going to be taken into police custody; (2) the police have a written policy outlining the parameters of the search; and (3) the scope of the search is reasonably necessary.  In this case, the police properly stopped the defendant’s car, properly arrested him on the outstanding warrant, and had a written policy governing inventory searches.  However, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled the impoundment of the car and the inventory search was not reasonably necessary because the officers had a lawful, practical alternative – they could have asked the defendant if he wanted his passenger to take custody of the car.  The Commonwealth argued that it was the defendant’s burden to ask the cops to release the car to his passenger, and the Commonwealth correctly pointed out the SJC had never ruled the police have an affirmative obligation to inquire about alternatives to towing a vehicle.  That changed in this case.  The Court ruled that where a driver is under arrest and there is a passenger who could lawfully drive his car away, the police are required to tell the driver he can give his car to the passenger.  Because the cops did not make such an offer to the defendant in this case, the impoundment of his car was improper and the inventory search was not reasonably necessary.

As a result of the Court’s decision, the gun found in the defendant’s car will not be admissible at his trial and his case will need to be dismissed.