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Court tosses drug evidence because trooper spent too long questioning driver after a traffic stop

The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled today prosecutors can't use the cocaine found in a man's car as evidence against him because the state trooper who initially stopped the man just off Rte. 1A in Lynn spent way too long asking him questions that had nothing to do with his failure to signal for a left turn.

The trooper initially pulled over Johan Soriano-Lara after he made an unsignalled left turn right in front of him off of Rte. 1A on Sept. 13, 2016. As they talked, the trooper noticed inconsistencies in Soriano-Lara's statements, for example, that he first claimed to live in Cranston, RI, then later said Providence, which he told the questioning trooper were the same place, according to the court's summary of the case.

The more they talked, the more the trooper, with 25 years of experience ferreting out criminals, in particular drug dealers, became convinced Soriano-Lara was lying, about something. The trooper asked him where he was coming from and the man answered a friend's repair garage to get his brakes fixed, but couldn't name the garage or its address; the trooper looked at the wheel lug nuts and found them covered in dust, which they wouldn't be if the car had just had its brakes worked on.The trooper went to his cruiser and looked up streets around Soriano-Lara's alleged Cranston residence, then asked him to name some of the streets around his home and he couldn't. He asked him his age and he gave a different age than the one on his supposed license. He couldn't say what his social-security number was.

Eventually, the trooper ordered him and his passenger out of the car and, after noticing a particularly worn area on the car's center console, near the temperature controls, which he knew from experience might indicate a hidden compartment:

[P]ulled on the out-of-place carpeted piece, and uncovered a hidden compartment containing a metal box. Farrell opened the box and found a bundle of currency and a substance later identified as cocaine. Farrell arrested both the defendant and the passenger.

In its ruling, the appeals court said the initial stop was fine, as was the questioning about his identity, but the trooper simply went to far in his questioning when he had no probable cause to believe Soriano-Lara had done anything wrong other than not signalling.

The court began its reasoning:

We agree that Farrell still had reason to question the defendant further in order to ascertain his identity and address so that Farrell could issue him a citation for the traffic violation. The problem is that Farrell did not do so. Instead, he proceeded to question the defendant about where the defendant was coming from. Upon hearing the defendant's reply - that he was coming from a repair shop where a friend had performed brake work on the Volvo - Farrell continued to question the defendant about the name of the shop, the address of the shop, and the name of the friend who had performed the work. Further, believing that the defendant's inability to answer these questions meant he was lying, Farrell proceeded to inspect the Volvo's four wheels, to see if their rims or lug nuts showed any signs of recent work.Finding no such signs, Farrell resumed the questioning. Only at this point did Farrell turn back to questions that touched on the defendant's identity by asking, once again, where he lived. Farrell then saw the displaced carpeting that led to his discovery of the hidden compartment.

Farrell's digression into general investigative questioning of the defendant was constitutionally impermissible. "Citizens do not expect that police officers handling a routine traffic violation will engage, in the absence of justification, in stalling tactics, obfuscation, strained conversation, or unjustified exit orders, to prolong the seizure in the hope that, sooner or later, the stop might yield up some evidence of an arrestable crime." Commonwealth v. Gonsalves, 429 Mass. 658, 663 (1999). See Tavares, 482 Mass. at 703. Farrell's authority to detain the defendant and his passenger ended when the process of ascertaining the defendant's identity and address to the extent required to write him a traffic citation "reasonably should have been" completed. Cordero, 477 Mass. at 242, quoting Rodriguez, 575 U.S.at 349."The initial stop was therefore unreasonably extended and constituted an illegal seizure." Tavares, supra at 704. "As this prolonged detention was unconstitutional, and the evidence at issue flowed therefrom," such evidence "should have been suppressed as the fruit of the poisonous tree." Id. at 706, 708

The court continued that, unlike in other cases, the car was not reported stolen, the passenger provided a valid-sounding reason for why Soriano-Lara was driving a car registered to her mother and Soriano-Lara handed over what appeared to be a valid license. True, he appeared nervous, but Massachusetts courts have held that nervousness alone is not suspicious because even people who haven't done anything might be nervous when stopped by police.

Farrell would have been justified in extending the encounter in order to resolve the apparent discrepancy between the defendant's stated city of residence and the one shown on the proffered license. But Farrell had no reasonable suspicion of illegal drug activity, and thus he could not permissibly extend the encounter with questions aimed at pursuing his hunch that such activity was afoot. ... Even if Farrell had a reasonable suspicion that the defendant had proffered false identification, Farrell did not diligently pursue questioning to confirm or dispel that suspicion quickly."This was no 'swiftly developing situation 'that prevented verification or disproof of the officer's suspicions regarding the defendant's identity ...through routine computer or radio checks. ... Officers' actions must be no more intrusive than necessary at each step to effectuate both the safe conclusion to the traffic stop and the further investigation of the suspicious conduct" (quotations and citations omitted). Commonwealth v. Brown , 75 Mass. App. Ct. 528, 537 (2009).

PDF icon Complete ruling81.14 KB

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So, are they giving the money and the drugs back?

Voting closed 26

I bet you know that's not how it works.

As for me, IANAL, but I thought lying to a cop, specifically about your address, was a crime.

Voting closed 14

Lying to a federal agent is a Whole Thing, and the deck is stacked pretty badly against people being interviewed by them. But if you're talking state, well, that varies by state.

In Massachusetts I think there's "filing a false report" and "obstruction of justice". The latter would be applicable, but... I've *never* heard of someone being charged with obstruction of justice for lying about "no I didn't do it", just like I don't think perjury applies for the defendant in a trial. (I think it's intended to be used for other people -- witnesses and the like.)

There might also be something about failing to identify oneself to law enforcement when stopped, but that's very specific.

Voting closed 15

Nobody's talking about "I didn't do it" statements. The specific lie was about his address, which you don't mention.

Voting closed 6

I misread your comment as talking about lying in general *and* in specific. My bad.

Voting closed 10

Already used them.

Voting closed 15

About the thousands of other cases where something similar happened. However, in those cases the defendants either pleaded guilty (most likely) or didn't have a good lawyer. In those thousands of cases people had their rights violated and served considerable time in jail when they never should have.

Voting closed 32

... didn’t give him a ticket for not signaling. Could have at least got him on that.

Voting closed 16

(Expletive) pigs, (expletive) the idea that a person should be arrested for having cocaine, and (expletive) this moron for being too stupid to not signal a turn, especially in front of a police officer.

Voting closed 15

It sounds like good police work to me.
But I'm not a Judge.

Voting closed 20

But once you start asking people where they are going or coming from it kind of ends there because those questions have nothing to do with a traffic violation. So anything after that is not good (including the odd Catholic=Crime overtones in this one)

What isn’t clear here is whether the ID was fake? The address made up? Was he using someone else’s ID? Did he simply not know the streets next to his? (Not uncommon). If these questions were asked first and the other ones not asked at all this may have been a good stop.

Voting closed 18

What’s a reasonable answer when a police officer who has pulled you over for something legit (e.g. headlight out) asks “where are you coming from?” I am aware that I don’t have to answer that question, but i also don’t want to piss off a guy with a gun and a badge and the power to ruin my day, whose mental health issues, if any, are unknown to me.

Voting closed 22

Not many officers are going to ask this question though unless there is something he’s trying to figure out right? Or he’s just being cordial (or nosy) and trying to pass the time.

I mean, if you are coming from a bar and had a few be honest (about the bar, maybe not the “few”).

But always remember there may be a reason he’s asking you a question like that too. Maybe a similar car to yours was involved in a hit and run or some alleged road rage incident?

If your good at stories you can make something up too. If you have nothing to hide and are some middle age guy with no record (the cop will most likely know this from running your plate) nothing is going to happen to you. Which goes back to this case where maybe the guy had a record when he ran him for serious stuff and he was looking for more? That part of the story was let clear.

Voting closed 26

The amount of deference & benefit of the doubt given to police by white people never ceases to amaze me. The rare times I've been pulled over always ended up being a 30 min fishing expedition and frankly wish I knew this information when I was a commuting worker.

Unfortunately, it seems there's not much I can do if I feel like an officer is just wasting my time because they are "suspicious" of something about me. This whole idea of if you got nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about is a foreign idea for me and my family.

Voting closed 16