In a decision released today, a Lowell District Court judge has suppressed heroin and illegal prescription medication that was found in our client’s pocket. Unless the Commonwealth appeals the judge’s ruling, the case will be dismissed. Attorney Chris Spring argued the motion.
Our client was charged with possession of heroin and prescription medication following an investigation by the Lowell Police Department. The vice squad was conducting surveillance of a known drug dealer’s home when a detective saw a car pull up to the front of the apartment building. Our client was the front-seat passenger and he went into the drug dealer’s apartment. After less than a minute, our client came outside and got back into the car. The car began to drive away and the detective followed it. The detective believed our client had engaged in a drug deal based on the short period of time that he was in the apartment and because another drug deal had happened at the same location shortly beforehand. As he followed the car in which our client was riding, the detective noticed that the car had a defective tail light and was missing the side mirror on the driver’s side. The detective pulled over the car.
As the detective approached the passenger side of the car, he saw our client move his left hand up toward his sweatshirt pocket. The detective asked him where he was coming from and our client named the drug dealer who was the target of the vice squad’s investigation. The detective ordered our client to exit the vehicle. Once he was outside of the car, our client put his hand inside of his sweatshirt pocket. The detective ordered him to remove his hand from his pocket and our client complied. The detective then pat frisked our client and found a cigarette packet in his sweatshirt pocket. Inside of the cigarette packet was heroin and prescription medication.
A police officer is entitled to stop a car with defective equipment. Therefore, even though the real reason the detective here stopped the car was to investigate a potential drug transaction, he was legally permitted to stop the car once he observed the defective tail light and missing mirror. The problem with the detective’s conduct in this case was in ordering our client to get out of the car. A police officer may issue an exit order to a passenger of a motor vehicle in only three circumstances: (1) where the officer reasonably fears for his safety; (2) where there is reasonable suspicion that an occupant of the motor vehicle was engaged in criminal activity; or (3) where the officer has probable cause to believe there is contraband in the car, or where the driver is being arrested and the officer is searching the car incident to the driver’s arrest. In this case, the police officer did not testify at the motion to suppress hearing that he feared for his safety, so the first justification did not apply. There was no probable cause of illegal activity and the driver was not being arrested, so the third justification did not apply. The prosecutor was left to argue that based on the detective’s observations of our client briefly visiting a drug dealer’s apartment, there was reasonable suspicion that our client was engaged in criminal activity.
We argued that the detective’s belief that our client had been involved in a drug deal was nothing more than a hunch (which turned out to be correct). A police officer cannot detain an individual based on a hunch – there must be reasonable suspicion of illegal activity based on specific and articulable facts. Such facts did not exist in this case. The judge agreed with our argument and ruled that the detective’s exit order to our client was unconstitutional (a violation of our client’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure). Accordingly, the judge suppressed the drugs that were found in our client’s pocket.
This case illustrates the importance of aggressively litigating pretrial motions to suppress and dismiss. Even in cases where contraband is found in our clients’ pockets, we have frequently been successful in convincing judges to suppress the evidence, which results in the dismissal of the cases.