The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the allowance of the defendant’s motion to suppress incriminating statements that he made to the police after he was arrested for receiving a stolen motor vehicle in Commonwealth v Pridgett. The decision was based on the ground that the arresting officer’s belief that the defendant knew the vehicle was stolen was not supported by probable cause.
The basic facts were as follows. “While working undercover, the officer observed the defendant, who was leaning on a motor vehicle, talking on a cellular telephone[,] … and looking around. Upon investigating the vehicle’s license plate, the officer learned that the vehicle had been reported stolen. The officer further observed the defendant open the vehicle’s front passenger’s side door to toss something into the vehicle…. [Later,] the officer observed the defendant open the front passenger’s side door and sit in the front passenger’s seat. At that point the officer” decided to arrest the defendant. After receiving “Miranda warnings, the defendant made incriminating statements[,] including that he knew the motor vehicle was stolen.” After the issuance of complaints charging him with receiving a stolen motor vehicle and a related offense, the defendant filed a motion to suppress his postarrest statements on the basis that the officer lacked probable cause to arrest him. The motion was allowed and the Commonwealth filed an interlocutory appeal.
In its decision, the SJC noted that in order to make a lawful arrest for receiving a stolen motor vehicle under G.L. c.268, §28(a), the officer had to have “probable cause to believe that … the defendant possessed the motor vehicle” and that he “knew or had reason to know [it] was stolen.” The Court concluded that “although the officer had probable cause to believe that the defendant was in possession” of the vehicle, “the observations [the officer] made did not rise to the level of probable cause to believe that the defendant knew that the vehicle was stolen.” In the Court’s view, the officer could infer possession from his observations of “the defendant leaning on the vehicle, … tossing something inside the vehicle, and sitting in the vehicle’s passenger’s seat” while “no one else was in the vicinity of the vehicle.” However, “there was no evidence presented at the hearing [on the defendant’s motion to suppress] that the officer knew when the vehicle had been stolen. The Commonwealth acknowledges that the record does not reflect the timing of the theft, but nevertheless urges us to conclude that the officer could have inferred that the vehicle was recently stolen based on the fact that the original license plates were still attached. The Commonwealth reasons that this inference is permissible because a thief presumably would want to hide the vehicle’s stolen status as soon as possible, and thus the lawful owner’s license plates would likely be removed or replaced soon after the theft. However, the Commonwealth provides no case law — and we can find none — that supports this proposition. Further, there was no testimony at the hearing that even hinted at such a correlation.”
If you or a loved one made incriminating statements to the police, it is extremely important that you have an attorney to review the statements, evaluate the lawfulness of the police officer’s conduct, and determine whether there is a basis to challenge the admissibility of the statement. Attorney Daniel Cappetta is well versed in the law and has successfully mounted challenges to the admissibility of his clients’ admissions to police on numerous occasions. Call him today to help assess the potential defenses in your case.