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

The Massachusetts Court of Appeals held that pretextual inventory searches do not comport with the Fourth Amendment in the case of Commonwealth v. Lek. In the Lek case from Lowell the police detective conceded that he was using traffic infractions in order to detective gang activity.  In other words, traffic stops were being made not to enforce the traffic laws but with the hopes that guns, drugs or other evidence of gang activity would be discovered during the stop.


What happened in the Lek case?  

The Detective and his partner were in plainclothes in an unmarked police car. According to the Detective, he and his partner were looking for motor vehicle violations to address gang suppression through motor vehicle stops. the Detective testified that he was not required to do traffic enforcement that night and was doing it by his own free will.

The Detective 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 the Detective 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 threatens personal liberty and leads to discriminatory enforcement of the traffic laws. Hopefully, in the future, courts will find that the Fourth Amendment prohibits any type of pretextual use of traffic laws to investigate other crimes. To learn more about vehicle searches at traffic stops, follow Attorney DelSignore on Facebook.

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