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.