A Novel Search & Seizure Case

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A Novel Search & Seizure Case

Postby Alan K » Fri Apr 12, 2002 3:19 pm

Most of us are on the road a lot and are aware of police routine vehicle stops and our rights as individuals to protection from protusion into our rights.

Sometimes the judgment call of an LEO may be necessary as part of police duties to protect the public, and in the case reported in this post, as part of the community caretaking function or duty of the LEO.

What do you think?

Unlawful Search and Seizure case. Case decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) after appeals from, the Trial Court and the Appellate Court

Fact Summary:

A state trooper pulled up behind a car parked in the breakdown lane of a rural section of Route 20, at about 11:30 PM. It was a dark night and the parked vehicle had its right directional signal blinking. The trooper turned on his blue lights, and approached the vehicle and tried arousing the occupant (driver) and opened the door to ascertain the condition of the driver.

The trooper asked for his license and registration, after which, the trooper placed the defendant (driver) under arrest for driving The defendant was placed under arrest at that point for driving with a valid driver’s license.

During the booking process cocaine and marijuana were recovered.

“Following a jury trial, the defendant was found guilty of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute (second offense) possession of marijuana, and operating a motor vehicle after license revocation, for repeated traffic violations.” Before the trial the defendant had filed motions to suppress the drugs that were found on his person subsequent to his arrest for operating a motor vehicle without a valid driver’s license. A Superior Court judge, who was also the trial court judge, denied the motion. On Appeal, The Appeals Court ruled that the judge did not err in denying the motion to suppress or the motion for a required finding of not guilty and affirmed the conviction…The SJC granted the defendant’s application for further appellate review. SJC concluded that the State Trooper had sufficient justification to stop behind the defendant’s parked vehicle in a breakdown lane and to inquire about the defendant’s license and registration, the substances recovered from the defendant during the booking process were admissible at trial. Furthermore, there was sufficient evidence to find the defendant guilty of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, in violation of G.L> c.94C,Section 32A. “Accordingly, we affirm the conviction”

“Trooper Lenti’s approaching the defendant’s vehicle in the breakdown lane falls squarely under the trooper’s community caretaking function”. The Court goes on to discuss the facts summarized above, and states that this approach of the trooper does not require judicial justification and was a minimal intrusion on the defendant. Further that officer’s actions up to the point of opening the car door were not inconsistent with a routine inquiry requiring justification.

The trooper’s request for the defendant’s license and registration was not a seizure. There is no evidence that by requesting the defendant’s license and registration, the officer restrained the defendant through any physical force or authority…

“Given the length of time it took for the trooper to rouse the defendant by knocking on the window, the defendant’s response to the trooper’s question, and the fact that the defendant’s car was parked in a breakdown lane lane late at night on a rural stretch of road, with no indication from the defendant that he was having car trouble, and in light of the considerations articulated in State v. Ellenbecker, (159 Wis. 2d 91), it was reasonable for the trooper to ascertain the defendant’s identity. This request for the defendant’s license and registration was a minimal intrusion on the defendant’s rights, outweighed by the trooper’s responsibility to protect the public, through the community caretaking function, from a driver who may be unfit to continue driving….Accordingly, based on the evidence presented, we conclude that the trooper’s request for the defendant’s drivers license posed a minimal intrusion on the defendant’s rights and was not a seizure.”

Commonwealth v. Evans (Docket No. SJC-08559)

I felt that our readers would appreciate this type of case because we are constantly confronted with cases where the court may suppress evidence based upon unjustifiable stops or seizures.

Here is a case of a motor vehicle not moving, but in the breakdown lane, with no police stop resulting from apparent moving violations. In this case a novel theory was introduced by the court, (not actually new but seldom heard of) evolving around the trooper’s minimal intrusion on the defendant’s rights outweighed by the trooper’s duty and responsibility to protect the public through the community caretaking function.

I wonder if the evidence of the drug’s found after the license violation seizure, would have been adequate without the public and community protection theory so carefully elaborated in the decisions.

Alan K

"The Goddess of Justice is Blind"
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A Novel Search & Seizure Case

Postby gmattson » Fri Apr 12, 2002 6:28 pm

I've always been fascinated by the law.. It is a bit like learning another language..

Anyway, from an average person's understanding of what happened, wouldn't it make sense for the officer to investigate someone appearing to be unconscious while parked in a breakdown lane?

I may be misreading the phrase, <BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote
community caretaking function
, but doesn't it relate to the policeman's role as "protector" of the people? Wouldn't it make sense for him to try to find out what was wrong with the person?

I guess the issue becomes one of when he was entitled to start questioning/searching the person. When does a LEO have the right to request license/registration?

Had the guy suffered a heart attack and a witness watched the trooper approach the car, then walk away, I bet the guy would have a neglegence action filed before he got to a hospital!


[This message has been edited by gmattson (edited April 12, 2002).]
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A Novel Search & Seizure Case

Postby Alan K » Tue Apr 16, 2002 4:40 pm

GEM, sensei

I think that what you said was that under the circumstances of that case it is just common sense that the officer would have the right to invesitgate all circumstances where a car pulled over on rural rte. 20 at 11:30 PM, with right directional flashing, and where the occupant appeared not to respond to the officers attempt to arouse him.

The problem is that the issue raised related to the seizure of the narcotics during the booking process. The arrest was for driving after license revocation.

It was the duty of defense counsel to inquire into two aspects, namely, 1) the initial intrusion 2) the subsequent discovery ot the narcotics where the initial arrest was for motor vehicle statutory violations.

This was a double appeal from the trial court to the Appeals Court and then to the SJC, the latter handing down a carefully drafted decision.

The narcotics were not in plain view after a valid inquiry and arrest on other grounds, and no narcotic spoons or bongs or anything else clearly visible.

What the Court did was to take each step and validate the officers intrusion, the arrest, and the fruit of the tree during booking. These were what was challenged.

The results might have been vastly different if the defendant had been pulled over for appearing to drive slowly on a state road, and had frisked the defendant.

What we try to do here is to report the cases and the issues to demonstrate the various protections that we have and how subtle differences can affect our rights.

You are right in probably assuming that this case was a no-brainer; the lesson was how the Court arrived at its decision.


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