Two search and seizure cases from Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided two cases recently about how far police can go when drivers of a car are probably up to no good but there’s no real evidence.

Park near home

In Commonwealth v. Martin the court ruled against police who chased a kid into his house.

Three people were sitting in a car smoking pot. Massachusetts voters had decriminalized simple possession, so police couldn’t arrest them all. What they could do, legally, was write them a ticket, confiscate the drugs, and let them go.

We can infer from the decision that the people were young and black, and they lived in the poorer part of Boston. Legally that doesn’t matter. It may explain how police reacted.

What police did was detain them on suspicion of being up to no good and try to figure out a reason to arrest them. When the frisking started, one ran into his house. Police knew he lived nearby because his mother had come out to see what was up.

Unwilling to admit defeat police followed him inside, arrested him inside his house, and charged him with illegal possesion of a gun they found in his pocket. And violated his constitutional rights in the process.

On the sidewalk there was no evidence of a crime. According to police there was a lot of smoke. A lot of smoke is not evidence of criminal possession (over an ounce). When marijuana was decriminalized police tried to change their script from “an odor of marijuana” to “a strong odor of marijuana.” The Supreme Court supported decriminalization and refused to allow a simple wording change to evade the law.

Under state law, police can only pursue a suspect into a house to arrest for “a jailable misdemeanor or felony.” It’s not a crime for a young black man to go into his house when police want to talk to him.

Pretext denied

In Commonwealth v. Sanborn (477 Mass. 393) the court took on the case of a driver who was stopped so police could serve a restraining order.

A police officer sitting outside a bar running license plates found one registered to a man with an active restraining order. The order had not been given to the defendant, which meant it was not legally effective. The officer obtained a copy, pulled over the car, and arrested the defendant for drunk driving.

And violated his constitutional rights. He hadn’t done anything to deserve being pulled over.

Upon realizing that serving papers might not be a valid excuse to pull a driver over, the officer made up a story about the car wheels touching the white lines. The judge didn’t buy that.

The judge’s refusal to believe the pretext is very important. Judges are entitled to believe anything the officer says. Usually they do. Touching a white line is a valid excuse for a traffic stop. But sometimes the story doesn’t add up and the judge doesn’t buy it.

So all that was left is an officer who pulled a driver over to serve papers on him.

They can’t do that.

Business as usual

Both of these cases were about whether evidence found during an illegal search should be allowed. Following established precedent, the court said no.

Neither of these cases was about whether police would be punished for violating rights. Following established precedent, the system said no.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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