Criminal Law & Procedure–Unlawful Detention in Massachusetts Invalidates Subsequent Consent to Search

Criminal Law – Search and Seizure, Unlawful Detention Prior to Obtaining Consent,Commonwealth v. Elijah Judge, 2012 WL 537620 (Mass. Ct. Appeals Slip Opinion, Feb. 21, 2012).

Summary: The Court found that, where the defendant was convicted of trafficking cocaine and challenged admission of evidence obtained from a search of his car during a traffic stop, the police did not have reasonable suspicion to prolong the traffic stop prior to obtaining defendant’s consent to search. A Massachusetts State police trooper initiated a routine traffic stop after observing a rejected inspection sticker on the windshield of defendant’s vehicle. During the stop, defendant exhibited extreme nervousness, and purported to explain his initial failure to pull over with a story about visiting a nearby girlfriend. The trooper shortly thereafter learned that, while the license and registration were valid, both the defendant and passenger had prior criminal histories. The trooper called for additional officers, and asked the defendant additional questions, eventually obtaining consent to search the defendant’s vehicle. The trooper discovered cocaine within a bag located in the trunk. The defendant challenged the admission of evidence from the search of the car and trunk. The critical issue was whether, after the defendant complied with the usual requirements associated with a traffic violation, a legally sufficient basis existed, in terms of reasonable suspicion grounded in articulable facts, to further detain the defendant’s vehicle.  The Court answered in the negative.

DiscussionThe Commonwealth characterized the period of detention, between the verification of the license and registration and subsequent actions, as part of an overall exchange between the trooper and the defendant aimed at obtaining consent to search the defendant’s vehicle. The Court disagreed, and stated that a distinct period of time existed between verification of the license and the moment the defendant rendered consent. The Court explained that the rendering of consent was a separate period of detention that did not have legal justification in this instance, and therefore the defendant was improperly detained. The Court found that the factors relied upon by the Commonwealth (nervousness, inconsistent statements about a girlfriend, previous criminal record) did not equate to reasonable suspicion. Thus, the court found that the trooper lacked any reason to further interrogate the defendant or prolong the stop due to lack of reasonable suspicion, and reversed the order denying defendant’s motion to suppress.

Implications: The key considerations here were (1) the period of time spanning from validation of the license to obtaining consent and (2) the trooper’s reasonable suspicion to search. The Court’s opinion makes clear that the factors relied upon in order to claim reasonable suspicion should be considered together, noting that while a past criminal record is included in a reasonable suspicion evaluation, when considered with the other factors, the circumstances didn’t warrant continued detention.

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