There is much controversy surrounding automobile stops and searches in Massachusetts. When is an officer permitted to pull you over? Under what circumstances is an officer permitted to search your car? How extensively is an officer permitted to search the car and its contents? Is he allowed to open your trunk or glove box? While we address these questions below, consult with a qualified Massachusetts Drug Trafficking defense lawyer if you would like further clarification of your rights.
Police Must Possess Reasonable Suspicion to Stop Vehicle
Police officers have a right to stop a vehicle to speak with the driver if they possess a “reasonable suspicion” that the occupants of the vehicle “have committed, are committing, or are about to commit, a crime.” Stopping a motor vehicle constitutes a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. As experienced criminal defense attorneys know, oftentimes officers will act on a hunch and, later, claim that the motorist committed a traffic violation in order to justify the stop.
Police Must Possess Probable Cause to Search Vehicle
To conduct a lawful search of a motor vehicle, the police must possess probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime. When stopping a motorist to cite him for a traffic violation, a police officer has no lawful authority to search the vehicle. However, if during the course of the stop an officer develops probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband, such as illegal drugs, he may then search the vehicle. For example, if during this encounter the officer shines a flashlight into your vehicle’s interior and observes a scale or a syringe, he has probable cause to search your vehicle for illegal drugs. Police are permitted to seize any contraband, such as illegal drugs, they see in plain view. Challenging whether the officer actually possessed probable cause is the most common method of Boston Drug Crimes Lawyers for successfully suppressing the fruits of unconstitutional searches.
No Search Warrant Usually Required to Search Motor Vehicle
While law enforcement is required by the U.S. Constitution and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights to secure a search warrant before searching our homes – unless a certain exception applies – those constitutional protections do not normally extend to an automobile. Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court have ruled that the inherent mobility of motor vehicles make it impractical to require law enforcement to secure a search warrant before searching a vehicle. To search a motor vehicle, law enforcement needs only probable cause to believe that the vehicle either contains evidence of a crime or was involved in a crime. The Supreme Judicial Court has, however, ruled that the police may not wait an unreasonably long time before initiating the warrantless search of a vehicle. All is, however, not lost. With a well-structured cross-examination and well reasoned motion to suppress, a seasoned Boston Drug Crimes Lawyer may be able to demonstrate that the search was, nevertheless, unconstitutional.
When the police, pursuant to a written police department policy, have arranged to tow or impound a motor vehicle, they may conduct an inventory search of the vehicle’s contents. The police need not have any reason to suspect the vehicle contains evidence of a crime to conduct the search. Courts have reasoned that the police are permitted to search impounded or soon to be towed vehicles because it offers some measure of protection to the motorist’s property from theft (either by the police or the tow truck operator), insulates the police from accusations of theft, and safeguards the police, as well as the public, from dangerous items. The written police department policy often determines the permissible scope of an inventory search, though at some point an inventory search, irrespective of the written policy, intrudes on basic rights afforded us under the Fourth Amendment and the Declaration of Rights. For example, the police may require a search warrant to open a locked container. While a police officer conducting an inventory search may, without invalidating the search, harbor some suspicion that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of criminal activity, the police cannot use an inventory search as a pretext for a generalized search for such evidence.
As you likely know, police often set up roadblocks to catch those suspected of crimes, such as operating under the influence. By permitting police officers, without suspicion of any wrongdoing, including any traffic violation, to force motorists to submit to roadside inquiries, our courts have allowed the police infringe on our basic constitutional right to be let alone. The courts have, however, made efforts to reduce the likelihood of police abusing roadblocks by eliminating their discretion in determining which vehicles to stop. To comply with these court rulings, prior to executing a roadblock the police are required to possess an unbiased, predetermined methodology by which they will stop motorists (i.e., the police will stop every car, every fifth car, every tenth car, etc.), and the extent of the inquiry (i.e., asking the motorist to provide his license and registration). If the police suspect that a stopped motorist is intoxicated, they are permitted to ask him to step from the vehicle to perform field sobriety tests.
Kevin J. Mahoney is a Cambridge, Massachusetts Drug Trafficking Defense Lawyer. Call our office at 617-492-0055 to speak with Attorney Mahoney if you believe the police have violated your Constitutional Rights.