How Far Can The Police Go In Searching A Car After It Runs A Stop Light?

June 23, 2016  –  by Liam Scully

It’s always troubling when a civil motor vehicle stop turns into a full blown search and seizure leading to a criminal prosecution. These cases are litigated every day in District Courts across Massachusetts with mixed results, often turning on subtle details. As a lawyer, its crucial to recognize the significant of these details ahead of time in order to win motions to suppress evidence on behalf of clietns. A good example is the case of Commonwealth v. Meneide (Appeals Court No. 2015-P-0124) – (June 1, 2016) where the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed the judge’s allowance of the defendant’s motion to suppress a gun found by the police in his car, but denied the motion in regard to a quantity of marijuana found in the defendant’s pockets.

In this case, State troopers observed a car make an improper turn and decided to follow it. As they did so, they observed the defendant, who was driving, speaking on a cellular telephone, and looking around as he drove slowly through a residential area. The police suspected something nefarious was afoot.

When the defendant failed to come to a full stop before turning at a red light, the troopers pulled him over. The troopers saw the defendant apparently trying to conceal something under his seat. They claimed that they were concerned for their safety as a result.

When the Troopers first approached the car they said that the defendant was calm. They claimed that he became nervous after one of the troopers smelled an overwhelming odor of unburnt marijuana and air fresheners emanating from the car and asked the defendant to leave the car to be pat frisked. The pat frisk turned up two packets of marijuana (weighing less than an ounce) in the defendant’s pockets. This is still only a civil infraction in Massachusetts.

However the trooper decided to pat frisk the car to search for weapons, allegedly due to safety concerns. He first searched in the area of the driver’s seat but found nothing. Then he searched the backseat area and found nothing. However, when the trooper pulled down the back center armrest he discovered a gun that the defendant was not licensed to carry.

The defendant’s motion to suppress challenged the exit order, the pat frisk of the defendant, and the subsequent automobile search.

The motion judge found that safety concerns justified the exit order and pat frisk of the defendant, but that once the pat frisk resulted in the discovery of only a noncriminal quantity of marijuana, safety concerns did not justify the search of the backseat armrest where the gun was found.

In its decision, the Appeals Court agreed with the motion judge’s ruling. In the Court’s view, the defendant’s unusual action of lifting himself off the seat by six inches in a manner consistent with concealing something raised objectively reasonable safety concerns justifying the exit order, the pat frisk, and a limited search of the immediate area where the defendant had been seated.

The Appeals Court opined, however, that the more extensive pat frisk of the interior of the car was improper because it was not limited by, and rationally connected to, a safety concern about the particular area to be searched. The Court noted that it had found no case upholding a protective search into areas of a car about which there was no evidence to suggest there was any danger.

In this case, the defendant made no movement toward the backseat generally or more particularly toward the backseat armrest, and there was no other evidence to suggest a weapon was concealed there. The officers had no information suggesting that the defendant was armed or dangerous. Moreover, the pat frisk the defendant together with the search of the driver’s seat area dissipated the suspicion created by the defendant’s act of lifting himself off his seat.

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