SJC SAYS PRETEXTUAL STOP O.K. IF THERE IS ALSO VALID LEGAL JUSTIFICATION

In Commonwealth v. Buckley (February 14, 20180, the SJC affirmed the lower courts denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress, and “declined to disturb the general rule” set forth in Commonwealth v. Santana(1955), “that a traffic stop constitutes a ‘reasonable’ ‘seizure’ for purposes of art. 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights where a police officer has observed a traffic violation, notwithstanding the officer’s underlying motive for conducting the stop.”

The facts are as follows. While they were conducting surveillance of an apartment building for possible drug activity, Detectives Bombardier and Campbell “observed a vehicle park nearby, and its two occupants enter the building. Those same two individuals reemerged a few minutes later, returned to the vehicle, and drove away without the vehicle’s headlights on. Bombardier instructed a colleague, Officer
Nelson, to stop the vehicle for suspected drug activity. Nelson did so a few minutes later, upon observing the vehicle traveling twelve miles per hour above the speed limit.”  When the detectives arrived at the scene of the stop, Bombardier “noticed a strong odor of marijuana emanating from inside the vehicle. Bombardier asked the driver if she had any marijuana in the vehicle. She replied that she did not think so, and said that Bombardier could check.

After instructing the driver to step out, Bombardier used his flashlight to search the interior of the driver’s seat area. Finding nothing, he directed Campbell to ask the front seat passenger, the defendant, to leave the vehicle. When the defendant stepped out, Campbell observed what he believed to be a firearm under the front passenger seat. The officers arrested the defendant and the driver…. Another officer later observed a plastic bag on the floor of the cruiser between the defendant’s feet that appeared to contain ‘crack’ cocaine.”

After the return of indictments charging the defendant with possession with intent to distribute cocaine, firearm offenses, and other related offenses, he filed a motion to suppress the items seized during the traffic stop. The judge denied the motion and the defendant was convicted of the lesser included offense of cocaine possession.

In its decision, the SJC rejected the defendant’s argument “that the evidence against him should be suppressed as the product of a pretextual stop, where the officers stopped the vehicle the defendant occupied not because it was speeding, but because the police suspected that its occupants were involved in drug activity.” The Court stated that it would not abandon the Santana “rule, called the authorization approach, under which a traffic stop is reasonable for
art. 14 purposes ‘so long as the police are doing no more than they are legally permitted and objectively authorized to do,’ regardless of the underlying intent or motivations of the officers involved.  Stated differently, under the authorization test, a stop is reasonable under art. 14 as long as there is a legal justification for it.” The Court explained that “evaluating the validity of police conduct on the basis of objective facts and circumstances, without consideration of the subjective motivations underlying that conduct, is justified in part based on the significant evidentiary difficulties such an inquiry into police motives would often entail…. The authorization test avoids [the] often-speculative probing of the police’s ‘true’ motives, while at the same time providing an administrable rule to be applied by both law enforcement in the field as well as reviewing courts…. The bright-line standard of legal justification achieves this by clarifying exactly when the police may conduct a traffic stop: where an officer has observed a traffic violation.”

The SJC also noted the defendant’s concern “that the Santana
authorization test countenances pretextual stops — and more specifically, stops motivated by the race of the driver (i.e., racial profiling). In the defendant’s view, the SJC’s previous attempt to
address the problem of racial bias in traffic stops, has failed to provide a meaningful remedy.”

The Court declined to substantively address the racial profiling issue here, in part because the defendant (an African American male) did not allege that the vehicle in which he was riding was stopped as a result of such profiling. Nonetheless, the Court noted the defendant and a concurring justice “raise considerable, legitimate concerns regarding racial profiling…. We … acknowledge their valid questions regarding the lasting efficacy of [the Lora decision) for addressing the issue of pretextual stops motivated by race, given that in the near-decade since that decision, we are not aware of a single reported case suppressing evidence under its framework. We take this opportunity to encourage lawyers to use the Lora framework in cases where there is reason to believe a traffic stop was the result of racial profiling.”

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