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Massachusetts Appeals Court addresses Pretextual Inventory Search under the 4th Amendment in recent ruling

Can the police stop your car without a good reason? The recently decided case of Commonwealth v. Lek sheds some light on this issue. In this case, the lower court denied a defendant’s motion to suppress an inventory search findings after police searched his car and found a firearm.

What happened in the Lek case?  

An area of Lowell is considered a high gang area by local police. One night, Detective Sandoval and his partner were in plainclothes in an unmarked police car. According to Sandoval, he and his partner were looking for motor vehicle violations to address gang suppression through motor vehicle stops. Sandoval testified that he was not required to do traffic enforcement that night and was doing it by his own free will.

For reasons Sandoval did not testify to, he targeted Lek’s vehicle. He then observed Lek’s vehicle roll a stop sign and continued to follow the car before pulling him over. Lek gave the officer what he believed to be a fake ID, and Sandoval ordered Lek out of the vehicle for a pat frisk. Without securing the defendant in handcuffs, telling him he was under arrest or that the vehicle would be towed, Detective Sandoval began to search the vehicle and found a gun in the firearm.

The state defends the search as a lawful inventory search according to the police department’s policy. Under that policy, a search may be performed if the owner of the vehicle is arrested. The officer then advises the owner that the vehicle will be taken to a police facility for safekeeping and that the search will be conducted at that location. Obviously, none of these procedures happened in this case.

Typically, an inventory search may be conducted without any suspicion of wrongdoing, but the use of these types of searches is looked at with higher scrutiny by the courts. Its purpose must be “safeguarding the car or its contents, protecting the police against unfounded charges of misappropriation, protecting the public against the possibility that the car might contain weapons or other dangerous instrumentalities that might fall into the hands of vandals, or a combination of such reasons.”

The current rule concerning traffic stops is that they may be undertaken whenever a police officer has either probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe that a motor vehicle violation was committed, regardless of the officer’s subjective reasons for engaging in the stop.

This standard explicitly permits police to perform a pretextual motor vehicle stop ostensibly made based on a motor vehicle violation but actually made for the purpose of the investigation to uncover unrelated criminal activity. However, inventory searches of motor vehicles may not be undertaken as a pretext for an investigation. When it comes to inventory searches, courts have also recognized that limiting police discretion is essential to ensure that these searches are conducted only for purposes that are not investigative. Inventory searches are only permissible when the vehicle is impounded.

In this case, Sandoval commenced his search when there was no probable cause to search the vehicle. He ordered the defendant out of the vehicle and did not arrest or inform the defendant that the vehicle was impounded. He simply searched the vehicle. The initial stop of this vehicle was pretextual. It was motivated by an investigatory purpose separate from the defendant’s failure to fully stop before a stop sign. For one reason or another, the officer had already targeted the defendant’s vehicle for possible gang activity.

The Appeals Court, in this case, vacated the lower court’s judgment to deny the motion to suppress. However, the court failed to clarify the current police policy when it comes to searching a vehicle. The court could not decide whether searching the vehicle before the arrest was permissible and failed to address whether using pretextual traffic stops for unrelated law enforcement purposes is acceptable. The court left open many future issues when it comes to this policy. Using pretextual traffic stops for unrelated law enforcement purposes seems like a danger to personal liberties. Hopefully, in the future, courts will clarify whether this is acceptable police conduct. To learn more about vehicle searches at traffic stops, follow Attorney DelSignore on Facebook.

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