SJC allows firearm evidence seized during impoundment of vehicle

The Supreme Judicial Court recently upheld an Appeals Court decision overturning a Superior Court’s suppression of a gun and ammunition seized by Springfield police during a motor vehicle inventory search.

The following is a basic narrative of the relative facts and decision written by Chief Justice Ireland. Citations have been omitted and changes have been made to allow for easier reading. For the complete ruling please click on the link.

In Commonwealth v. Eddington, on April 29, 2007, at approximately 4:15 A.M.,Springfield police officers Martin and Vickery undertook surveillance (in a marked police cruiser) of an “after-hours” party at a residence on the corner of Colonial Avenue and Wilbraham Road. The officers were familiar with the residence because it was the scene of regular parties that frequently involved criminal activities that required their response, including fighting, shootings, two murders, public drinking outside the residence, and illegal parking.

Shortly after arriving at the residence, the officers saw the defendants leave the party carrying what appeared to be bottles of beer. The defendants walked across Wilbraham Road and over to a parking lot adjacent to a church. They got into an automobile, taking their bottles with them, and drove out of the parking lot. They turned left on Wilbraham Road, and then turned left on Suffolk Street. The officers followed and signaled for them to stop by using their blue lights and siren. The automobile pulled over promptly and stopped alongside a curb on the side of the street. This location was a short distance from the party the defendants had attended.

The officers approached the automobile to investigate the possibility of the presence of open containers of alcoholic beverages. Their suspicions were confirmed as soon as Officer Martin looked inside the automobile while asking Eddington, who was driving, for his license and registration. Two opened bottles of beer were in plain view inside the cup holders on the console between the front seats.

Eddington told the officers that he did not have a license, and he did not have the automobile’s registration. Officer Martin started preparing citations for the defendants for having open containers of beer in the automobile. He then obtained confirmation that Eddington’s license had been suspended. Eddington was removed from the automobile and placed under arrest for operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license. The officers determined that neither Eddington nor Cappas owned the automobile. Rather, from a check of the automobile’s registration plate number, the officers learned that the automobile was registered to a Jessica Rodriguez.

Because it was about 4:30 A.M., the officers decided not to contact Rodriguez to have her retrieve her automobile. The officers believed Suffolk Street (near Wilbraham Road) to be a “high crime” area, and were concerned that if left parked at the curb, the automobile would be vulnerable to theft or damage. Consequently, the officers decided to impound the automobile and arrange for it to be towed. Cappas was ordered out of the automobile. An inventory search was performed pursuant to the written policy of the department, and a loaded revolver was recovered under the front passenger seat. Cappas was arrested.

As relevant here, the judge suppressed the firearm and ammunition, concluding that the officers’ decision to impound the automobile was not justified. Because the automobile was lawfully parked, impoundment could only be justified if there was a risk of theft or threat of vandalism, which the judge determined that the Commonwealth did not show. Specifically, the judge explained that the officers’ testimony that the vicinity of the stop was a “high crime” area was insufficient to establish a likelihood of theft or vandalism because “[t]he nature of the crimes” that rendered the location of the stop a high crime area was not described.

The Appeals Court reversed, concluding that the case falls under “the long-standing rule that impoundment of a car pulled over may be justified by specific evidence of a danger that the car left unattended might be vandalized or stolen when that danger is combined with a need to protect the police from false claims of loss.”

The Appeals Court found the following factors determinative: the automobile was parked in a location dictated by the circumstances of the stop and not by the driver’s choice; the location of the stop was a “high crime” area; the defendants were not able to move the automobile; the owner was not present; it was impracticable, on account of the time at which the stop occurred, to contact the owner; and the police were not constitutionally obligated to contact the owner. The Appeals Court explained that these factors demonstrated “a sufficient risk that the car might be vandalized or stolen so that, when combined with the risk of false claims for loss against the police, the impoundment of the car, pursuant to a constitutionally adequate police policy, was reasonable and thus permissible under the Fourth Amendment.”

On a motion to suppress evidence seized during a warrantless search, such as an inventory search as was done here, it is the Commonwealth’s burden to establish that the evidence was lawfully obtained.”Under both the Federal and Massachusetts Constitutions, analysis of the legitimacy of an inventory search of an impounded vehicle involves two related, but distinct, inquiries:

(1) whether the impoundment of the vehicle leading to the search meets constitutional strictures, and

(2) whether the conduct and scope of the search itself meets those strictures.”

The second aspect of the analysis is not at issue in this case; we focus on the propriety of the impoundment.

“The impoundment of a vehicle for noninvestigatory reasons is generally justified if supported by public safety concerns or by the danger of theft or vandalism to a vehicle left unattended.” There have been other circumstances where impoundment has been justified, such as where a vehicle was stopped on private property and the only occupant of the vehicle was arrested, leaving it “driverless,”

It must also not be overlooked that there are three separate interests protected by permitting warrantless inventory searches: “the protection of the vehicle and its contents; the protection of the police and the tow company from false charges; and the protection of the public from the dangerous items which might be in the vehicle,” which includes the interior of a locked trunk that is “certainly not invulnerable to vandalism or theft.”

In this case, the automobile was lawfully parked and did not pose a public safety risk. Relying on Commonwealth v. Brinson, supra, Eddington contends that, because the automobile was lawfully parked, the officers should have left it. We held that “the government may not impound and conduct an inventory search of a car based on the arrest of the owner, where the car was lawfully parked in a privately owned parking lot and there was no evidence that the car constituted a safety hazard or was at risk of theft or vandalism.” In the Brinson case, however, the owner of the automobile inventoried was present at the stop and earlier had selected the parking lot location at which his automobile was parked. Here, the action of police in signaling for the automobile to pull over dictated the location of the stop (along the curb of a public street) and the owner of the automobile, Rodriguez, was not present at the scene to express a preference on the vehicle’s disposition. In accordance with our past precedent, the police were not constitutionally obligated to contact her.

Although we need not examine the reason of the police officers for not attempting to contact Rodriguez, the reason for not doing so–the early morning hour–provided a sound basis for their decision. We also find significant the facts that Eddington was unable to operate the automobile because he had been placed under arrest (for operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license) and Cappas had been drinking and was not known to be authorized to drive the automobile.

We thus conclude that the police acted reasonably in deciding to impound the automobile in the circumstances.

The orders allowing the motion to suppress as to Eddington and Cappas are reversed, and orders denying the motion to suppress are to enter. The cases are remanded to the Superior Court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

About Attorney John J. MacLaughlan

John MacLaughlan is Massachusetts licensed attorney as well as a Boston police officer. John is currently assigned to the Youth Violence Strike Force (Gang Unit). He is a graduate of the Massachusetts School of Law with a concentration in Labor Law. He holds a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell as well as a Bachelors Degree in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. John has taught Defensive Tactics, Firearms, Use of Force, Applied Patrol Procedures, and Police Response to Active Shooters to sworn police officers and police academy recruits. Prior to becoming a Boston Police Officer, John served for 9 years as a police officer in Lowell, where he was a member of the Police Dive Team and Patrol Rifle Team.
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