The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday agreed with a Boston Municipal Court judge that there was no probable cause to arrest a man sitting in the passenger seat of a stolen car, and therefore his subsequent statements to the police must be suppressed. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Pridgett.
An undercover police officer saw the defendant leaning on a car and looking around while talking on his cell phone. The officer ran the car’s license plate and learned the vehicle had been reported stolen. The officer continued to watch as the defendant opened the front passenger’s side door and threw something inside the car. After a little more time passed, during which the defendant was still leaning on the outside of the car, he finally entered and sat down in the front passenger seat. At that point, the undercover officer had uniformed cops approach the car, remove the defendant, and place him in handcuffs. After the cops read him his Miranda warnings, the defendant stated that he knew the car was stolen and the items found in the car might have also been stolen. The defendant was charged with receiving a stolen motor vehicle (subsequent offense) and receiving stolen property valued at more than $250. He filed a motion to suppress his statements, arguing they were “fruit of the poisonous tree” (which means that his initial arrest was illegal, and therefore the statements he made after the illegal arrest also cannot be used against him). A Boston Municipal Court judge suppressed the statements and the Commonwealth appealed. After the Appeals Court upheld the suppression order, the Commonwealth appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court.
The issue on appeal was whether the police had probable cause to arrest the defendant for receiving a stolen motor vehicle at the time of his arrest. If so, the statements were properly obtained by the police. If not, the statements would need to be suppressed. The Court easily concluded that there was probable cause to believe the car was stolen. The next question was whether the defendant was legally in possession of the car. He argued being in the vicinity of the car, and even sitting in the passenger’s seat, did not prove he possessed it. However, the Court pointed out that the defendant was not simply sitting in the passenger’s seat. The cop saw him leaning on the car for a period of time, opening and closing the door, and tossing an object inside, all while nobody else was in the vicinity of the car. Based on these observations, the Court concluded the defendant was in possession of the vehicle. However, while the evidence established possession, it did not establish the final element – that the defendant knew the car was stolen. The Commonwealth argued the Court should conclude the car must have been recently stolen (because the original license plate was still attached, and a thief would have taken the original plate off as soon as possible), and therefore, the defendant must have been aware of the recently-stolen status of the vehicle. The Court didn’t buy it – pointing out that there are no prior appellate cases that support the Commonwealth’s argument. Because the cops lacked probable cause to believe the defendant knew the car was stolen, the arrest was unconstitutional and his statements to the police will be inadmissible in court.
The case will be remanded to the Boston Municipal Court, but it’s hard to imagine how the Commonwealth will prove its case without the defendant’s admissions to the police.