In Commonwealth v. Oliveira, the SJC upheld the lower court’s allowance of the motions to suppress the fruits of the inventory search of the vehicle in which they had been travelling, because the police acted unreasonably in impounding the vehicle. The basic facts were as follows: Police officers were dispatched to a department store where loss prevention personnel had detained the defendants for allegedly shoplifting some items. In response to a question by the police, defendant Violet stated that he and defendant Oliveira had travelled to the store in a vehicle registered to Violet’s girl friend. The officers “located the vehicle properly parked in a marked spot in the parking lot.” Then “the defendants were placed under arrest for shoplifting,” “The police told them that Violet’s vehicle would be inventoried and towed. The defendants became ‘visibly agitated,’ and Violet stated that he wanted his girl friend … to come and pick up the vehicle rather than to have it towed. The police refused, and conducted an inventory search of the vehicle. During the search, they discovered a loaded firearm.
In its decision, the SJC “concluded that where Violet had offered the police an alternative to impoundment that was lawful and practical under the circumstances, it was unreasonable and thus unconstitutional to impound the vehicle and conduct an inventory search.” The Court explained that “Violet’s request that the police leave the vehicle where he parked it until his girl friend could retrieve it was lawful and practical. Before the vehicle was impounded, Violet had been arrested only for shoplifting, a crime that was punishable by a fine of no more than $250, … so it was likely that he would be released on bail after he was booked and could then notify his girl friend to retrieve the vehicle or retrieve it himself. Even if he were not quickly released on bail, he was legally entitled to make a telephone call at the police station…. During this … call, he could notify his girl friend of the need to pick up her vehicle or ask another person to notify her. Even if he were unable to reach her and was not released on bail, there was no evidence that the vehicle was at significant risk of being stolen or vandalized if it remained overnight in the department store lot. Nor, where it was parked properly in the lot, did it pose any public safety risk or any obstruction to other vehicles. Nor was there evidence that the lot was the private property of the department store; it was described simply as a ‘public way’ at the hearing” on the defendants’ suppression motions.”