The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today agreed with the Appeals Court that a superior court judge had erroneously ruled a large amount of cocaine has been properly seized by the police. The SJC’s ruling means the drugs will no longer be admissible at the defendant’s trial and he will likely go free. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Barreto.
The cops received an anonymous tip that a green Volvo station wagon would be parked at a particular intersection in Roxbury and inside would be a large amount of drugs. Upon receiving this intelligence, police officers began watching the intersection and found the green Volvo, which allegedly turned without signaling. The defendant was driving, and when he parked nearby, he reached toward the floor of the passenger side of the car. A person approached the car on foot from a nearby apartment building and leaned into the car (in a way that suggested the man and the defendant had exchanged something). However, the cops could not see them actually exchange items. After 30 seconds, the man returned to the apartment building and the defendant began to drive away until the cops pulled him over. At least four cops descended on the defendant’s car and the defendant appeared to be nervous as he interacted with them. He wasn’t making eye contact, was breathing heavily, and was looking in his side and rear view mirrors at the officers standing behind him. One of the cops ordered the defendant to get out of his car. As he was exiting, the cop saw a roll of cash in a plastic bag secreted in the storage compartment of the driver’s side seat. The defendant was not carrying contraband or weapons on his body, but a subsequent search of the interior of his car (with the assistance of a drug-sniffing dog) revealed a large amount of cocaine hidden in the front passenger’s seat. The defendant was charged with trafficking in cocaine. He filed a motion to suppress, arguing the exit order was unconstitutional. A superior court judge disagreed and denied the motion. The Appeals Court reversed, concluding the exit order was unlawful. The SJC agreed with the Appeals Court that the exit order was improper. Therefore, the subsequent discovery of the cocaine was tainted fruit of the poisonous tree and will be suppressed.
The SJC ruled that the cops had acted lawfully in stopping the defendant’s car because they observed a motor vehicle infraction. However, the cops do not have the right to order every driver who commits a motor vehicle infraction out of his car. A cop can only issue an exit order if: he believes the safety of officers or others are threatened; he has reasonable suspicion of criminal activity; or the cops are going to search the car on other grounds. The Court concluded that the cops did not have valid safety concerns that would have justified an exit order. While appearing nervous, the defendant did not make any suspicious movements and he followed the officers’ instructions. Nervousness alone does not warrant the issuance of an exit order. The Court also found the Commonwealth had not proven the cops had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity at the time of the exit order. The cops had not observed a hand-to-hand exchange, and the gentlemen’s interaction was consistent with innocent activities.
Therefore, the drugs are suppressed and the Commonwealth will be forced to dismiss the case.