The Supreme Judicial Court today upheld the drug-possession conviction of a man who was a passenger in a car pulled over because the driver had forgotten to put on the headlights one night.
Rogelio Buckley had appealed his conviction, arguing the traffic stop, which lead to the discovery of cocaine under his passenger seat, was a "pretextual" violation of his right against unreasonable search and seizure, because police really wanted to stop the car to investigate drugs, not because the driver forgot to turn on her headlights. The officers who pulled the car over had, in fact, been doing a stakeout of an apartment building suspected of drug activity, and noticed Buckley and the driver enter the building, then quickly leave.
But the state's highest court upheld its ruling in a 1995 case that held that under the state's constitutional restriction on unreasonable seizures, it doesn't matter why the police really wanted to pull the car over, as long as the traffic violation was for real.
In [that case], we articulated the current State constitutional standard for evaluating the validity of a traffic stop. Under that rule, called the authorization approach, 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. We have long held that an observed traffic violation is one such justification.
The court further explained:
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. This would require that courts discern not only whether the police initially possessed some underlying motive that failed to align with the legal were acting on that "improper" motive (i.e., the pretext), as opposed to the "proper" motive, when engaging in the challenged action. Both judges and legal commentators have questioned the ability of courts -- venues of limited insight -- to reach accurate and satisfactory answers to these questions, which may be more appropriately handled by psychologists or philosophers than lawyers. ...
The authorization test avoids this 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. Like its Federal counterpart, art. 14 must often "be applied on the spur (and in the heat) of the moment, and the object in implementing its command of reasonableness is to draw standards sufficiently clear and simple to be applied with a fair prospect of surviving judicial second-guessing months and years after an arrest or search is made." Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318, 347 (2001). 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. "If this were not so, [a traffic stop's] validity could not be settled until long after the event; it would depend not only on the psychology of the arresting officer but on the psychology of the judge." United States v. McCambridge, 551 F.2d 865, 870 (1st Cir. 1977). Moreover, this rule also ensures that the same constitutional protections under art. 14 are afforded to all Massachusetts drivers where the same factual circumstances are present. As we observed in Santana, "the defendants' contention might yield the illogical result of allowing stops of nonsuspect drivers who violate motor vehicle laws, but forbidding stops of suspected criminals who violate motor vehicle laws."