In a recent decision concerning whether the seizure and resulting inventory search of a car by the police, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that, in circumstances where persons are arrested and their vehicle may be towed and inventoried, a practical alternative to the seizure and impoundment of the car could render its impoundment unreasonable and unlawful. See Commonwealth v. Jemaul R. Oliveira.
In this case, Mitchell Violet and Jemaul Oliveira were arrested for shoplifting from a department store. When questioned, they told the police that the merchandise was in a bag in their car and also gave the police the keys and permission to retrieve the bag from the car. The police took the keys, unlocked the car and retrieved the bag from the back seat.
After advising them that the car would be impounded and inventoried, the defendants appeared “agitated” and Violet requested that he have his girlfriend come pick up the car, as it was also registered in her name. The police rejected this request, conducted an inventory search of the car, and in the glove compartment, found a loaded firearm.
Both were then charged with Shoplifting by Concealing Merchandise and Unlawfully Carrying a Firearm.
Prior to trial, the defendants file a motion to suppress evidence, asserting that the seizure of the car was unlawful because they offered a reasonable and practical alternative to it being seized, impounded and inventoried…
In Massachusetts, after the arrest of a driver, a car may be lawfully seized and inventoried. Police conduct inventory searches in these circumstances to protect the vehicle and its contents from theft or vandalism; to protect the public from dangerous items that might be within it; or to protect the safety of the public when the vehicle, whether because of where it is parked or otherwise, creates a dangerous condition; or where the vehicle is parked on private property without the permission of the owner and to spare the property owner from having it towed.
An inventory search, however, is only lawful if (1) the seizure/impoundment was reasonable; and (2) the search following the seizure was conducted pursuant to standard written police procedures. If the police’s true purpose is investigatory, as opposed to the safety or protection of the vehicle, the seizure must be justified as an investigative search.
In holding that the seizure of the defendants’ car was unlawful and the inventory search was not justified, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court noted that the defendant’s request that the car be left parked until his girlfriend could retrieve it was lawful and practical. Before the “impoundment”, they had only been arrested for shoplifting, a crime that is not even punishable by imprisonment. It was likely, then, that the defendants would have been released on bail after having been booked, and he could even have retrieved the vehicle himself later on. He also had the right to make a phone call at booking, and he could have called his girlfriend and instructed her to pick up the car.
Additionally, the SJC noted that there was no evidence that the car, where parked, posed any significant risk of being stolen or vandalized even if it were to remain parked there overnight. It was parked in the department store’s parking lot and did not appear to pose any public risk or obstruction to other cars.
Another key holding in this decision was the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s rejection of the Commonwealth’s argument that the police can only consider a request for an alternative disposition only if the vehicle’s owner is present. The SJC rejected this and held that such rule would undermine the nature of the impoundment decision, which requires that the police act reasonably and requires a case-by-case analysis.
This case is yet another instance that highlights that the police will attempt to use any means to justify a search of a vehicle, even if the arrest of the person had nothing to do with the car. Over the years, I have represented many individuals where their car was seized pursuant to an “inventory search” and impoundment for “legitimate reasons”, but the police’s true objective was merely to see if they could discovery any other evidence of a crime.
Unfortunately, many people do not understand or know that they have a right to reject a police officer’s request to search their car. Some people just agree because of fear if they say no, their being uncooperative will aggravate the police or they might be treated more unfairly. Breaking news, if the police want to search your car, more often than not, they will find a way to justify a search, whether or not you agree. It’s always best to know your rights and refuse consent to any search whatsoever. If the police search anyways, your lawyer will be able to challenge in court whether or not the search was lawful.