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SJC Decision Limits Police Ability to Impound Motor Vehicles

gun-1623761-300x202The Supreme Judicial Court recently affirmed the allowance of the defendant’s motion to suppress a firearm in Commonwealth v. Crowley-Chester on the grounds that the police were not justified in impounding the vehicle in which the weapon was discovered.

The basic facts were as follows. At 3:00 a.m. on the date in question, police officer Longo and a colleague “were on routine patrol on Williams Street when they observed a Honda Accord automobile parked on the street in front of a vacant lot and across the street from a church. The vehicle’s engine was running, and its lights were off. Using the police cruiser’s spotlight, … Longo observed two individuals seated in the front of the vehicle, both of whom appeared to be making furtive type movements. The defendant was the front seat passenger. The officers approached the vehicle and, after observing an unknown object in the defendant’s hand and a knife in the center console, ordered the driver out of the vehicle. When the driver got out of the vehicle, a white rock-like substance fell to the ground…. Longo recognized the object to be consistent with ‘crack’ cocaine, and the driver was placed under arrest. At this point, the defendant was … ordered out of the vehicle” and Longo “retrieved and secured the knife. The driver then asked that the defendant, who was not yet under arrest and who was free to leave the scene, be allowed to drive the vehicle.” However, because “the defendant did not have a driver’s license,” “[t]he officers … decided to impound [and tow] the vehicle. In the course of the resultant inventory search [which is required any time the police tow a motor vehicle], … Longo found a backpack containing a firearm. The backpack, which had the name ‘Atreyo’ [the defendant’s given name] written on it, also contained a pay stub with [his] name.” After the issuance of a complaint charging the defendant with firearm offenses under G. L. c. 269, §10(a), he filed a motion to suppress the firearm. “At the hearing on the motion …, the defendant introduced in evidence a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) log of telephone calls made to the … police department reporting criminal activity for three streets in the area around, and including, Williams Street.” The judge allowed the motion to suppress, “bas[ing] his decision that impoundment [of the Honda] was improper solely on his findings that the vehicle was not in danger of damage or theft.”

In its decision, the SJC rejected the Commonwealth’s argument that the impoundment was reasonable in light of the time of the incident (3:00 a.m.) and the fact that “the [Honda] was parked in a ‘high crime’ area.” The Court opined that although “Officer Longo testified that the crimes in the area included drug and firearm offenses, gang activity, domestic violence, and breaking and entering of both motor vehicles and businesses,” “[w]hat matters for purposes of considering the propriety of a motor vehicle impoundment … is not the over-all frequency of crime in the vicinity but the risk of vandalism, theft, or a break-in to the motor vehicle. The number and frequency of other types of crimes does not directly bear on the question whether impoundment is reasonably necessary to safeguard the vehicle or to protect the public. Here, the judge noted that the CAD log contain[ed] only one entry indicating such a motor vehicle-related crime.” Moreover, stated the SJC, the Honda “was legally parked on a city street in a location of the driver’s choosing. The neighborhood was at least partially residential and other vehicles were also lawfully parked on the same street…. Because the police did not have more than that here, it was not reasonable for them to impound the vehicle for the purpose of protecting it from theft or vandalism.”

Impounding a vehicle and using that as an excuse to conduct an inventory search is a common way for police to claim that they have a lawful basis to enter and search a car. As this case shows, however, there are limits to this claim of lawfulness. If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges because of a search similar to the one conducted in this case, you may well have an argument that any evidence recovered as a result of the search should be suppressed. Attorney Daniel Cappetta has successfully represented clients at motion to suppress hearings many times. Put his expertise to work for you and call him for a free consultation today.