The Massachusetts Appeals Court last week upheld a District Court judge’s suppression order of a firearm found in a car after it was unlawfully impounded by police.
The defendant in the case was charged in the case was charged in the district court with unlawfully carrying a firearm without a license, and unlawful possession of a firearm or ammunition. The car in which he was a passenger was stopped at 3:00 a.m. by police after they observed it to be parked on the street and across from a church. They noted that the car’s engine was running and its lights were off. Inside the car were two people, the driver and the defendant-passenger. According to police, they saw the occupants make “furtive movements”.
The police approached the car and saw an “unknown object” in the defendant’s hand and a knife in the center console. They ordered the driver out of the car and what they believed to be crack drop to the ground as he exited. Seeing this, they placed the driver under arrest. The defendant-passenger was also ordered out of the car. He was not placed under arrest and was eventually permitted by the police to leave on his own.
Because the driver of the car was arrested, there was the possibility that his car was to be towed. He asked if the defendant-passenger could drive the car home, but the police determined he did not have a license. Because the police asserted that the vehicle was parked in a “high crime area”, they decided to impound the vehicle. During the inventory of the vehicle’s contents that followed, police found a backpack that contained a firearm, as well as papers with the defendant’s name on it. This discovery led to the firearms charges being issued against the defendant.
The question before the district court judge was whether the officers’ decision to impound the vehicle was reasonable under the circumstances here.
The prosecutor for the Commonwealth argued that, because of the late hour, 3:00 a.m., and because the car was parked in a “high crime area”, it was reasonable under the circumstances for the police to impound the car and to subject it to an inventory search. In support of its argument, the Commonwealth cited the high frequency of gang activity in the area; drug and gun crimes; domestic violence; and the breaking and entering of vehicles and business in that particular area.
In ruling against the government and concluding that the police order to impound the vehicle was unlawful, the Appeals Court adopted the judge’s reasoning that the overall frequency of crime in the vicinity does not matter. The general frequency of crime does not bear directly to the question of whether the impoundment was necessary and, therefore, lawful. Rather, the it is the specific risk of potential vandalism, theft, or break-ins to the vehicle in the particular location.
Additionally, the Appeals Court distinguished this case from others where impoundment of the vehicle had previously been deemed proper because it was in a “high crime area”. In other cases, the car was stopped as a result of police pulling it over. In this case, the car was already lawfully parked before the police approached it. In other words, it was already in a location of the driver’s choosing, as opposed to a location that was dictated by the police as a result of a stop.
As a result, the Appeals Court agreed that the Commonwealth failed to establish that it was reasonably necessary to impound the vehicle. Consequently, the order of impoundment and subsequent “inventory search” and search of the backpack that yielded the gun was unlawful. The judge correctly suppressed or threw out the evidence.
In typical cases, where the driver of the car is arrested or not otherwise to arrange of the disposition of the vehicle (whether because there is no one else to drive it), the police will have it towed and impounded. Thereafter, an inventory search is conducted for a variety of reasons. To protect the police from claims of theft of items within, etc., as well as to protect the vehicle from theft or vandalism. If, during the inventory search, contraband or anything of an illegal nature is discovered, the person may be charged with those items.
The police, however, cannot order an impoundment and inventory search of a car if their true purpose is investigatory, in other words