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Police need to check driver's car information before they begin to question him for not having an inspection sticker, court rules in tossing OUI charge

State troopers may have meant well when they mistakenly stopped a man for not having an inspection sticker a few days after he bought his car, but they were still wrong and that means prosecutors can't use evidence the driver was drunk against him, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled today.

The ruling comes in the case of a man initially pulled over in Brockton in 2017 because he didn't have an inspection sticker on his car. After using their blue lights to get the man to pull over, one of the troopers approached the car and "smelled the odor of an alcoholic beverage on the defendant's breath and noticed a partially full container of beer in the car" - at which point he ordered the man out, conducted further inquiries and then arrested him on an OUI charge, according to the court's summary of the case.

The problem is that the troopers should never have pulled the main over to begin with, the court said. He had bought the car less than seven days earlier and state law gives motorists seven days to get their new vehicles inspected. If the stop was improper, everything that happened after it cannot be used as evidence against the man, the court said.

Specifically, the court continued, although the troopers may not have known the man was still within the inspection grace period that when they initially pulled him over, they did have a working mobile terminal in their cruiser, through which they could have called up the car's information before going up to this window. That would have shown that the man was doing nothing wrong in regards to the lack of an inspection sticker, which means they should have sent the man on his way, rather than doing things that led to him being arrested.

A lower-court judge had ruled the evidence could still be used, because state troopers were not intentionally disregarding the Fourth Amendment, but the appeals court said that was in error as well:

[W]e conclude that whether the troopers' suspicion was reasonable in this case depended on all of the information reasonably available to them through the [terminal] in the cruiser before the stop, including information about the vehicle's registration and inspection status. To the extent that the troopers overlooked information that was reasonably available to them and which would have dispelled their initial suspicion that the car was being operated unlawfully, they acted unreasonably. ...

The judge's finding that the troopers were acting mistakenly, but in good faith, when they stopped the car does not remedy the constitutional defects in the stop.

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Comments

Wow. So much is wrong with this.

The first thing being the drunk driving.

Next, that we have this system of stickers which is supposedly for safety, but really is an excuse for police to pull people over.

After that, the RMV should have thought of how driving around for 7 days with no sticker is supposed to work. Are police supposed to pull you over, and it's on you to explain you just bought the car? Are they supposed to run your plates before coming over, like the court said? A better system would be a temporary 7-day sticker that comes with your new license plate.

And finally, as long as someone's rights weren't violated like being racially profiled, etc, why SHOULDN'T police be able to unintentionally discover someone is driving drunk, and arrest them for it as a result? The only person who acted in bad faith was the drunk driver.

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Why SHOULDN'T police be able to unintentionally discover someone is driving drunk, and arrest them for it as a result?

It’s a bedrock principle that illegally obtained evidence is disregarded. This is an effective way to discourage illegal police actions. The alternative is to say, “oops, we shouldn’t have made that illegal search, but since we did anyhow, and since the defendant is obviously guilty, how ‘bout we let the evidence stand?” That would invite all sort of abuse.

The broader, longer term goal of keeping the police on the right side of the law is more important than the one-off benefit of convicting this one defendant

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And finally, as long as someone's rights weren't violated like being racially profiled,

Given how prevalent profiling is right now, maybe we shouldn't give cops any loopholes to jump through, and demand they do their job by the book.

Next, that we have this system of stickers which is supposedly for safety, but really is an excuse for police to pull people over.

No, it's for safety. Unmaintained cars become dangerous to their occupants and others. The annual inspection catches things like bald tires, worn-out steering components and leaky exhausts. You really don't want the inspections to go away, regardless of how much you hate that the cops can enforce them.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but in my observations of others and limited first-hand experience, when you get pulled over, the officer generally comes right up and asks you for "license and registration." S/he then takes that back to the car to run against whatever databases they use. I've never seen someone get pulled over and then just sit there while the police run their plates. Could they have run the plates before pulling the car over? I guess so, but that just doesn't seem to be the way things are done in real life.

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according to the court ruling. What you are describing is common when an officer stops a driver for an observed traffic violation, like they watched you blow through a stop sign.

But they didn't observe any traffic infraction or criminal act, they saw an inspection sticker that appeared to be in violation of the law, and the court argues that simply by checking the status of the newly registered license plate on the vehicle, they would have known the driver was not in violation of the inspection law because he was within the grace period and therefore had no reason to stop him.

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Presumably they can't operate the computer while driving so they'd need to pull him over first. If the check came back as valid, they'd need tell the driver the stop was in error and they are free to go. But in doing so, they'd see the beer.

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Presumably they can't operate the computer while driving

Incorrect presumption.

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I've taken the time to skim the full ruling, which Adam kindly posted.

The car has no visible inspection sticker, and presumably Massachusetts license plates. But the facts also state that in this traffic stop, there were TWO Troopers in the cruiser making the stop. While that's not standard, perhaps it was a new Trooper on his field training, or a specialized unit within MSP that has two Troopers in the same cruiser. The Trooper in the passenger seat could have certainly run the registration info before they stopped the car. The court ruled that in this case, it was reasonably possible for them to have obtained the necessary registration info before making a traffic stop, therefore not doing so is unreasonable and unconstitutional.

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Thanks for reading what I did not!

It would be interesting if this would have been ruled differently if there was a single officer in the car who had no practical way of running the check without pulling the driver over first.

If the trooper saw the expired inspection sticker (or in this case no inspection sticker) and pulled the vehicle over, and then ran the check on the laptop because they didn't want to drive recklessly and type and look at a screen where it may not be possible (think highway) when the car was stopped, the trooper would still need to go to the driver and let them know "sorry, I pulled you over for not having the sticker but after stopping I see you registered the car 3 days ago and you have 7 days to get a sticker". Now in doing this if the trooper saw the driver was drunk, there is a chance the court could have ruled differently. You can't expect every trooper to run the plate before pulling it over and examining the inspection status which if done as fast as possible probably takes 10 seconds of typing and 3 seconds of looking at a computer screen.

But that is for another court to decide on another day. This is also a case that could be appealed by the DA and has a decent chance of going another way (one judge already thought it could)

The main issue with a case like this goes the other way. Often times the criminal information that comes up when you run a plate gives you alerts for things that are wrong all the time. I haven't used one in a while but back in the day if you ran a plate, the plate goes through the MA system which is connected to all systems nation wide (NCIC/CJIS/Immigration/etc). If you pulled over a registered owner named Richard Ramirez, an alert would happen and the system would tell you that someone with not so similar info (Richard Hernandez) and they might have a warrant from some other state! And it was wrong almost 100% of the time. So if you could stop cars based on this alone, it opens up a huge can of worms of illegal stops and seizures and other things.

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The two Troopers were in the same cruiser. Any argument that they could not have run the plate while following the vehicle, rather than having to stop it to safely operate the MDT falls flat. Perhaps if it was a single officer in a cruiser, the court could have ruled differently, but those aren't the circumstances of this case.

Definitely a factor. The funny thing is that it has been argued that being able to "run plates" before stops leads to potential profiling issues. But yes in this case the police have the ability to see if they have the legal right to seize someone before doing so.

This case could still go either way I bet if appealed.

But to the point of my first post, in a similar situation, if the troopers testified that they saw the vehicle with no inspection sticker and immediately activated their lights and sirens before the vehicle was able get on a highway (or some other reason) and then they looked it up and just wanted to tell the driver they were all set, then I be the stop is valid.

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Why don't police departments tell their officers to stop using such a stupid piece of software?

Or if the owner has a warrant for murder, etc etc.

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I was always under the impression that they can run and find out most things they need to about you without a stop or a window trip. However, how else are they going to get/ticket people for not having a license or registration on their person/in their car or other charges. I just assume this was order of operation helps in the case of racism in stops for DWB. Where they can look for more in the stop.

Typical doesn't mean correct. Court is clear that reasonable suspicion now means taking a few seconds to check the registration status via their terminal whenever they encounter an expired inspection sticker. This would also apply to a plate without a plate decal as there is a grace period for a new car. An expired decal is a violation and cops would not have to check the status prior to stop.

Maybe for two person cars…..

If they found a dead body in the back seat they wouldn't be able to charge him?
They are dismissing good faith police work.

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That would mean they could walk into anyone's house with no cause looking for dead bodies, and that would constitute illegal search and seizure.

Source: Constitution of the United States of America

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And it was in good faith, walking into your house for no reason is not good faith police work. If your house is on fire and a cop kicks the door down to help and finds a dead body I'd say that was good faith and the evidence should stand.

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Police can never enter a house based on "good faith" but a fire is what they call exigent circumstances and would be able to go in.

But to your point besides that the police need a warrant to go into a house but going into or searching a vehicle does not require a warrant and the Constitution does not cover automobiles. A 1925 US Supreme Court Case does cover it though...

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But this case sounds like police just doing what they do and they came across a drunk guy. If they let him go and he killed someone I wonder what would happen to them?
Also I've seen people say running plates is an unreasonable search.

In the end a drunk driver was taken off the streets. 99.9% of the time people with no inspection stickers aren't drunk so think of it that way......

And you are right about the running plates issue but courts have ruled that this is all public information so running plates is good (unless it is done with bias or some other illegal reason like stalking someone)

How long until this issue is moot, because license plate cameras on every cop car and every corner will provide the police with live info about every passing car's inspection status (and license and unpaid tax bills and library fines) without having to look for a sticker?

Of course such systems often snag people incorrectly, for things like ancient traffic tickets which got cleared up but another state's computer didn't know, and people get sent home on foot while their car is impounded until they clear it up and come up with the money for towing and storage fees. But that's our system, so whadda ya gonna do?

We allow drivers high on weed to operate with impunity, so why not on alcohol. For at least 10 days after they buy a new car perhaps.

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Source?

It is called Operating Under the Influence for a reason.

https://www.bostonglobe.com/2021/12/28/opinion/toking-driving-just-isnt-...

To wit, you can refuse a test for THC without the same consequences as refusing a breathalyzer.

You can also puff away in your car while driving.

is that it can stay in your system for a pretty long time. to my knowledge, there’s no blood test that can say “this person is high right now”