Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Search of Car that Led to Drug Conviction

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today upheld the convictions of a man who was arrested for operating under the influence of marijuana and later found guilty of possessing oxycodone and cocaine in his glove compartment.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Davis

In July of 2015, a Massachusetts state trooper saw the defendant driving dangerously on the Mass Pike in Brighton.  The defendant was tailgating other cars and driving more than 40 miles per hour over the speed limit.  The trooper pulled over the defendant’s car and approached the driver’s side window, encountering the defendant and his two passengers.  There was a strong smell of burnt marijuana emanating from the car and the defendant appeared to be high.  His eyes were red, glassy, and droopy; he struggled to keep his eyes open; his mouth appeared to be dry; and his speech was slow.  The defendant admitted he had smoked marijuana a couple of hours earlier.  The trooper thought the passengers also appeared to be under the influence of marijuana, as they both struggled to stay awake during the traffic stop.  They also admitted to having smoked marijuana earlier in the day.  The trooper asked the defendant to get out of the car and observed additional clues leading him to believe the defendant was impaired.  His coordination was slow, he was unfocused, and he couldn’t follow instructions.  The trooper decided to arrest the defendant for operating under the influence of drugs.  The defendant asked that one of his passengers be permitted to drive his car away from the scene, but because both passengers appeared high, the trooper decided to have the car towed.  Before the tow truck arrived, the trooper began searching the trunk and found a loaded gun, ammunition, and multiple bags of marijuana.  The trooper arranged to have the car towed to the barracks, where a drug dog alerted to possible narcotics in the glove compartment.  The glove compartment was locked, but the trooper obtained the key from the defendant’s pocket and opened it.  Inside were 11 oxycodone pills and two bags containing cocaine.  The defendant was charged with numerous crimes including operating under the influence of marijuana, carrying a firearm without a license, and possession of cocaine and oxycodone.  A Boston Municipal Court jury found the defendant not guilty of all charges except possession of the cocaine and oxycodone that were in the glove compartment.  The defendant appealed.

Prior to his trial, the defendant had filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in his car.  He argued the trooper did not have probable cause to arrest him, and there was no constitutional justification for the search.  He repeated those arguments on appeal.  The Supreme Judicial Court concluded there was probable cause to believe the defendant was operating under the influence of marijuana.  The trooper’s observations of the operation of the car in conjunction with the defendant’s physical appearance and admission that he has smoked marijuana earlier in the day was sufficient to arrest the defendant.

The next question was whether the search of the car that led to the discovery of the drugs in the glove compartment was lawful.  The Boston Municipal Court judge who heard the motion to suppress ruled the search of the glove compartment was a proper inventory search.  The police are allowed to search a car in their custody to inventory its contents, but the intent of the search cannot be to investigate a crime.  The SJC ruled the search of the glove compartment was not a lawful inventory search because the trooper’s use of the drug dog established the search was investigatory.  The Court upheld the search on another ground, however – the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.  The automobile exception allows the police to search a car without a warrant if there is probable cause to believe the car contains evidence of a crime.  Here, the police had probable cause to believe the glove compartment would contain evidence related to the crime of operating under the influence of marijuana.  Given the defendant’s appearance and confession to having smoked marijuana, it was reasonable for the trooper to believe the glove compartment would contain marijuana or implements used to consume marijuana.  Accordingly, the search was constitutional and the defendant’s convictions will stand.