Cops can keep using traffic violations as a reason to pull over suspects in more serious crimes, court rules

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."


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This is the strangest part of

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This is the strangest part of the traffic stop:

when Bombardier "asked [the driver] if she had any marijuana in the car. She told him she did not think so and said that he could check."

Did the defendant really tell the cop he go ahead and search the car, knowing it contained drugs and a gun?

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The driver was not the

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The driver was not the defendant, a passenger was.

If this person was smart enough to refuse a search, the outcome would've been very different.

There was a recent ruling from the federal circuit covering Massachusetts where a person was pulled over for a trivial traffic violation (tires brushing the lane markers without signalling, on I-95, IIRC), and the police then used his apparent nervousness during the traffic stop as an excuse to detain him, bringing in drug dogs when he refused a search. They found drugs in his car, and the whole thing was thrown out when the court ruled that the police couldn't expand a trivial traffic stop to a search (without consent) based on his mere nervousness.

I looked around and thought I even read about it on uHub but can't find it now. Maybe Adam remembers this case.

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That case doesn't sound familiar, but ...

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Based on your description (and with the caveat that I am not a lawyer), I can see a significant difference between the ruling there and this one.

In today's case, according to the ruling, police had pretty obvious probable-cause to arrest the guy - there was a gun in plain sight in the car after he got out, at the request of the driver (the drug conviction was actually for the cocaine they found in the back seat of the cruiser after he got out to be booked).

From your description of that other case, the cops may have had enough reason to pull the driver over - for violating marked lanes, say - but not enough to pull him out of the car, let alone arrest him for something else.

In cases where probable cause is not really as obvious as in today's case (or the one involving the guy who allegedly shot a gun from a car right in front of a cop), you really need more than one reason to get to a state where you can "seize" somebody and pat frisk him (or search his car).

Nervousness alone is not enough, as you note. In fact, in Massachusetts, the SJC has held that even running from a cop is not enough, if the runner is a black man in Boston and there are no other factors.

Now, if he's running after police have gotten a call for shots fired nearby AND he's clutching his waist, which a veteran police officer would know often means he's carrying a gun AND he's in what's considered a high-crime area AND he's seen throwing something over a fence, then, yeah, there's your probable cause to "seize" and pat frisk him. But just being nervous? Nope, sorry officers.

What would have made today's case more, um, interesting, is if the gun had not been in plain sight - like if it were hidden in the trunk or better stowed under the seat. Then the prosecution might have had a more difficult case fighting to keep the gun as evidence. And if the gun can't be used as evidence, then maybe the cocaine couldn't be, either, since it could be argued it was the product of an illegal arrest.

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I'm very skeptical that the

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I'm very skeptical that the gun was really in plain sight. It was 11pm in January. I can't imagine anyone being able to recognize (let alone notice) a gun under the seat as someone else is getting out of the car. People have a hard enough time finding their own cellphone under the seat.

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I don't think it's strange.

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I don't think it's strange. Look at the brain power you're dealing with.

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Adam -- thanks

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for including links to the cases cited as well as the case itself -- very helpful!

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