For Purposes of M.G.L. 90§10, SJC Clarifies What a Nonresident is

On May 20, 2011 the SJC ruled in COMMONWEALTH vs. KRISTIAN A. CHOWN 459 Mass. 756 (2011), deciding that for the purposes of G. L. c.90, § 10 that the defendant was a nonresident, reversing a prior Appeals court decision. The court relied on the factors in G. L. c.90, § 3 ½ and stated that without them present the charge of unlicensed operation could not stand.

The court in deciding the case stated “A Superior Court judge properly granted a criminal defendant’s pretrial motion to suppress drugs, money, and other evidence seized by police during an inventory search of the defendant’s vehicle following his arrest at a lawful traffic stop, where the police officer who stopped the defendant’s vehicle had no probable cause to believe that any of the factors in G. L. c.90, § 3 ½ ; were present to show that the defendant was a Massachusetts resident, and therefore, there was no basis for arresting the defendant under G. L. c. 90, § 21, for operation of a motor vehicle in Massachusetts without a Massachusetts driver’s license once the defendant produced what appeared to be a valid Canadian driver’s license.

The Appeals Court, by a divided panel, reversed, concluding that Sergeant Tynan was warranted in believing the defendant was a Massachusetts resident and therefore was required to have a Massachusetts driver’s license. Commonwealth v. Chown, 76 Mass. App. Ct. 684 , 690 (2010). The Appeals Court reasoned that “it appears almost inescapable that the defendant was a [Massachusetts] resident [because] [f]rom the perspective of Sergeant Tynan, the defendant had lived and worked for years in Massachusetts, possessed a local driving record dating back to 1989, had at one point a Massachusetts license, drove a truck with a sticker on it for the local dump, and said he was planning on going the following day to the [r]egistry to obtain a license.” Id. Because Sergeant Tynan had probable cause to arrest the defendant, the Appeals Court determined that the evidence seized thereafter was admissible. Id. As previously noted, we granted the defendant’s application for further appellate review.

2. Discussion. As an initial matter, there is no question that Sergeant Tynan had authority to stop the defendant for speeding. See Commonwealth v. Bacon, 381 Mass. 642 , 644 (1980), and cases cited (“Where the police have observed a traffic violation, they are warranted in stopping a vehicle”). What we must decide is whether Sergeant Tynan thereafter had a lawful basis to arrest the defendant. An overview of the statutory scheme is in order.
a. Statutory scheme. As relevant here, under G. L. c. 90, § 10, a “person” who is sixteen years of age or older is prohibited from “operat[ing] a motor vehicle upon any way [in Massachusetts]” without first obtaining a Massachusetts driver’s license. Section 10 contains several exceptions to the Massachusetts driver’s license requirement. Operation of a motor vehicle in Massachusetts without a Massachusetts driver’s license, for example, is permitted “for persons licensed in another state or country” if the person “possesses a receipt issued under [G. L. c. 90, § 8].” G. L. c. 90, § 10, first par. It also is permitted with respect to a “nonresident” subject to certain limitations as follows:
“The motor vehicle of a nonresident may be operated on the ways of the commonwealth in accordance with [G. L. c. 90, § 3,] by its owner . . . without a license from the registrar [of motor vehicles] if the nonresident operator is duly licensed under the laws of the state or country where such vehicle is registered and has such license on his person or in the vehicle in some easily accessible place. Subject to the provisions of [§ 3], a nonresident who holds a license under the laws of the state or country in which he resides may operate any motor vehicle of a type which he is licensed to operate under said license, duly registered in this commonwealth or in any state or country; provided, that he has the license on his person or in the vehicle in some easily accessible place, and that, as finally determined by the registrar, his state or country grants substantially similar privileges to residents of this commonwealth and prescribes and enforces standards of fitness for operations of motor vehicles substantially as high as those prescribed and enforced by this commonwealth.”
G. L. c. 90, § 10, first par. General Laws c. 90, § 3, first par., provides in pertinent part:
“Subject to the provisions of [G. L. c. 90, § 3A (pertaining to the appointment of registrar as attorney for purposes of service of process),] and except as otherwise provided in this section and in [§ 10], a motor vehicle . . . owned by a non-resident who has complied with the laws relative to motor vehicles . . . and the registration and operation thereof, of the state or country of registration, may be operated on the ways of this commonwealth without registration under this chapter, to the extent, as to length of time of operation and otherwise, that, as finally determined by the registrar, the state or country of registration grants substantially similar privileges in the case of motor vehicles . . . duly registered under the laws and owned by residents of this commonwealth; provided, that no motor vehicle . . . shall be so operated on more than thirty days in the aggregate in any one year or, in any case where the owner thereof acquires a regular place of abode or business or employment within the commonwealth, beyond a period of thirty days after the acquisition thereof, except during such time as the owner thereof maintains in full force a policy of liability insurance providing indemnity for or protection to him, and to any person responsible for the operation of such motor vehicle . . . with his express or implied consent, against loss by reason of the liability to pay damages to others for bodily injuries, including death at any time resulting therefrom, caused by such motor vehicle . . . , at least to the amount or limits required in a motor vehicle liability policy as defined in [G. L. c. 90, § 34A]” (emphasis added).
Operation of a motor vehicle in Massachusetts without a proper license is a violation of law and an arrestable offense. See G. L. c. 90, § 21, first par. (“Any officer . . . may arrest without a warrant . . . any person who, while operating a motor vehicle on any way . . . violates the provisions of the first paragraph of [G. L. c. 90, § 10]”). In addition, “[a]ny arrest made pursuant to [G. L. c. 90, § 21, first par.,] shall be deemed an arrest for the criminal offense or offenses involved and not for any civil motor vehicle infraction arising out of the same incident.” Id.

b. Basis for arrest. The Commonwealth argues that Sergeant Tynan properly arrested the defendant for driving without a Massachusetts license because, based on the facts then known to Sergeant Tynan, he had probable cause to believe that the defendant was a resident of Massachusetts and was driving without a valid Massachusetts driver’s license. “Where, as is the case here, an arrest and attendant search are made without a warrant, the Commonwealth bears the burden of establishing that the actions of the police met constitutional standards.” Commonwealth v. Santaliz,413 Mass. 238 , 240 (1992). “Both the Fourth Amendment . . . and art. 14 . . . require that an arrest upon which a search is undertaken be based on probable cause.” Id., and cases cited. “[P]robable cause exists where, at the moment of arrest, the facts and circumstances within the knowledge of the police are enough to warrant a prudent person in believing that the individual arrested has committed or was committing an offense” (emphasis added). Id. at 241, quoting Commonwealth v. Storey, 378 Mass. 312 , 321 (1979), cert. denied, 446 U.S. 955 (1980). “The officers must have entertained rationally ‘more than a suspicion of criminal involvement, something definite and substantial, but not a prima facie case of the commission of a crime, let alone a case beyond a reasonable doubt.’ ” Commonwealth v. Santaliz, supra, quoting Commonwealth v. Rivera, 27 Mass. App. Ct. 41 , 45 (1989). “[A]n objective test is used to determine whether probable cause exists.” Commonwealth v. Franco, 419 Mass. 635 , 639 (1995). We conclude that the Commonwealth did not satisfy its burden in this case.

By producing a Canadian driver’s license to Sergeant Tynan, the defendant, essentially, was claiming to be a “nonresident” who, subject to the provisions of G. L. c. 90, §§ 3 and 10, may lawfully operate a motor vehicle in Massachusetts without a Massachusetts driver’s license. Under G. L. c. 90, § 3 1/2 , however, “[a]ny person claiming to be a nonresident for purposes of [G. L. c. 90, § 3], shall be deemed to be a resident of the commonwealth” in certain circumstances. G. L. c. 90, § 3 1/2 (a) (1)-(13) (listing various factors for deeming Massachusetts residency, such as whether person is registered to vote in Massachusetts; has homeowner’s liability insurance coverage on property declared to be occupied as principal residence; receives public assistance for himself or dependent child; or obtains any benefit, exemption, deduction, or privilege by claiming principal residence in Commonwealth). One of the enumerated factors must be present for a person to be “deemed” a Massachusetts resident (for purposes of G. L. c. 90). This requirement no doubt exists because the determination of residency otherwise typically is “largely a question of fact,” Rummel v. Peters, 314 Mass. 504 , 517 (1943), and the statute “contemplates that a [person] may be a nonresident although he has a regular place of abode or residence here.” Id. at 513. Thus, the factors in § 3 1/2 (a) (1)-(13) somewhat simplify the issue by being the only ones that are determinative. In addition, the statute requires the custodian of the records that contain the information referred to in § 3 1/2 (a) (1)-(13) to provide access to that information to “a local or state police officer” “for purposes of enforcing [G. L. c. 90].” G. L. c. 90, § 3 1/2 (b). As such, a legal determination of residency (for purposes of G. L. c. 90) involves some investigation and as a practical matter is not one that can be made in the field based on suspicions that do not correspond to the various residency factors enumerated in § 3 1/2 (a).

Here, when Sergeant Tynan arrested the defendant, although he suspected that the defendant was a resident of Massachusetts for various reasons, he had not conducted an investigation into the matter or obtained any of the relevant determinative information under and pursuant to § 3 1/2 . Consequently, Sergeant Tynan did not base his decision to arrest on information that was “definite and substantial,” Commonwealth v. Santaliz, supra, in the context of the confines of the statutory scheme, in particular, G. L. c. 90, § 3 1/2 , and thus, did not possess the requisite probable cause to arrest the defendant for operating without a Massachusetts driver’s license.

There is no doubt that the Legislature has limited the period of time that a nonresident (who possesses a license from another State or country) may operate a motor vehicle in Massachusetts without a Massachusetts driver’s license and without furnishing liability insurance. The requirements exist for the protection of the public. Apger v. New York Cent. R.R., 310 Mass. 495 , 497 (1941). Just as the Legislature has prohibited all resident operators of Massachusetts from operating a motor vehicle in Massachusetts without furnishing the insurance protection required under the compulsory motor vehicle insurance law, see VanDresser v. Firlings, 305 Mass. 51 , 53 (1940), the Legislature has extended this public policy to require liability insurance as set forth in G. L. c. 90, § 3, of nonresidents operating in Massachusetts after a limited period of time. See Apger v. New York Cent. R.R., supra. Specifically, the Legislature has imposed two temporal limitations. First, in the absence of the requisite liability insurance, a nonresident may not operate a motor vehicle in Massachusetts for “more than thirty days in the aggregate in any one year.” G. L. c. 90, § 3, first par. Second, in the absence of the requisite liability insurance, a nonresident may not operate a motor vehicle in Massachusetts “beyond a period of thirty days after the acquisition [of]” “a regular place of abode or business or employment [in Massachusetts].” Id. See VanDresser v. Firlings, supra at 54 (phrase “period of thirty days” begins on fixed date and ends after expiration of thirty days from that date). These provisions serve to “eliminate the evil of uncompensated injuries caused to travellers by owners of automobiles who were unable to satisfy the claims of the victims of their negligence.” Apger v. New York Cent. R.R., supra at 498.

If a police officer has reason to believe that a nonresident driver is in violation of these temporal limitations, the officer may, in a routine traffic stop, request a copy of the operator’s liability policy or insurance certificate. An operator’s failure to produce evidence of insurance may result in the issuance of a citation or summons, but it is not an arrestable offense under G. L. c. 90, and does not provide a basis for establishing probable cause to arrest. Here, where there was not probable cause to believe that any of the factors in G. L. c. 90, § 3 1/2 , were present to show that the driver was a Massachusetts resident, there was no basis for his arrest under G. L. c. 90, § 21 (“officer . . . may arrest without a warrant . . . any person who, while operating a motor vehicle on any way . . . violates the provisions of the first paragraph of [G. L. c. 90, § 10 ]]”), once the operator produced what appeared to be a valid Canadian license.

We speak to one final matter. We agree with the motion judge and the dissenting opinion in Commonwealth v. Chown, 76 Mass. App. Ct. 684 , 693-695 (2010) (Trainor, J., dissenting), that Commonwealth v. Caceres, 413 Mass. 749 (1992), is not instructive here. In that case, an inventory search of a vehicle was challenged by the defendant who had been the driver. Id. at 750. The defendant did not contest the lawfulness of the stop or of his arrest (he had given the State trooper who stopped him a false name in violation of G. L. c. 90, § 25). Id. We rejected the defendant’s claim that the circumstances did not justify seizing his vehicle and conducting an inventory search. Id. In so doing, we stated that “the evidence justified a reasonable conclusion that the passenger [who produced a driver’s license from Puerto Rico] was not authorized to operate a motor vehicle in Massachusetts [and that] there was no alternative but to seize the vehicle and to conduct an inventory search.” Id. at 752. We explained that the passenger was not authorized to operate the vehicle because of “uncontroverted evidence” that warranted “an objectively reasonable belief that [the passenger] had been in the continental United States for three years and . . . did not . . . have a license to operate other than the Puerto Rico license.” Id. at 753. In this case, there was no such “uncontroverted evidence” that, at the time of his arrest in January, 2006, the defendant had been in Massachusetts for three years. Just prior to being arrested the defendant had produced what appeared to be a valid, and recently acquired, Canadian driver’s license showing a New Brunswick address, and at the evidentiary hearing on his motion to suppress the defendant maintained that, at the time of his arrest, he was a resident of New Brunswick, Canada.

3. Conclusion. The order allowing the defendant’s motion to suppress is affirmed. So ordered.”

Attorney Ronald A. Sellon

About Attorney Ronald A. Sellon

Ronald A. Sellon is a licensed Attorney in the state of Massachusetts and U.S. District Court, Massachusetts as well as a Sergeant with a Municipal Police Department and U.S. military Veteran. Additionally, he has taught Criminal Procedure at the Massachusetts State Police Academy in New Braintree and has written a text on Criminal Procedure for police field training officer programs. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, was a 2008 recipient of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police (Mass C.O.P.) Presidents award and holds a Bachelors Degree in Law Enforcement, a Masters Degree in Criminal Justice Administration, and a Juris Doctor Law Degree. Questions related to content material may be directed to RSellon@PoliceLegalPromotions.com
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