In an important search and seizure case delivered yesterday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled a police officer may not stop a car to serve a restraining order on its driver absent extraordinary circumstances. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Sanborn.
In May of 2015, a Lunenberg police sergeant was randomly checking the status of license plates of cars parked outside of a bar. He came across the defendant’s vehicle and remembered that a restraining order had been issued against him but not yet served. Often times, a victim of domestic violence will go to court to seek a restraining order. These orders are routinely issued immediately on an emergency basis, which means the defendant does not know about the restraining order until a police officer delivers a copy to him. A defendant cannot be charged with violating the order unless he has been served with a copy. In this case the sergeant obtained a copy of the restraining order and when the defendant left the bar and drove away, the sergeant followed and stopped him. After interacting with the defendant, the sergeant concluded he was under the influence of alcohol and arrested him. The defendant filed a motion to suppress his stop and argued the existence of an outstanding restraining order that needed to be served did not provide constitutional authority for the sergeant to pull him over. A Fitchburg District Court judge agreed and suppressed the stop (which means there is no evidence for the Commonwealth to prosecute the OUI). The Supreme Judicial Court reviewed the case to determine if the federal and state constitutions allow a police officer to conduct a motor vehicle stop to serve a restraining order.
The Court began its analysis by pointing out that a warrantless stop is presumed to be unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional. In this case, the police officer did not have reasonable belief that the defendant had committed a crime or a civil motor vehicle violation. Further, none of the exceptions to the warrant requirement (such as an emergency situation) were present in this case. The Court said the cops were obligated to attempt service by in-person delivery, leaving the order at the defendant’s home, or potentially by mail. In this case, if the sergeant had simply followed the defendant’s car until it stopped and the defendant exited, he (the sergeant) could have then approached the defendant to serve him with the order. It was the stopping of the car that created the constitutional problem in this case.
The Chief Justice wrote a concurrence. While he agreed with the outcome of this case, he argued that in cases where service by the usual means is not possible (for example, when the defendant has left his home and the cops do not know where he lives or works), it would be reasonable for a police officer to stop the defendant’s car to serve him with the order. Here, because there was no evidence the defendant could not be served with the restraining order through the usual means, it was improper for the sergeant to have stopped him.