Massachusetts Court Reins In Pretext Stop And Search

Two favorite tactics used by traffic police in Massachusetts — the pretext stop and the inventory search — may no longer be automatically combined to justify an inventory search of a car stopped on a pretext under a ruling handed down earlier this month by the state Appeals Court.

In 1973, the US Supreme Court ruled in South Dakota v. Opperman that police could search cars that they had impounded based on the legal fiction that the search was for the purpose of “community caretaking” rather than law enforcement. In 1996, the high court ruled in Whren v. United States that police could stop a car for any traffic violation even if they had no real interest in enforcing traffic laws. Since then it has become routine for police to look for minor violations like touching a lane line or driving 3 MPH over the speed limit in the hopes of escalating the encounter into an incident justifying an arrest or search.