Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Says Search of Vehicle After Exit Order Was Wrongful

A great number of Cape Cod criminal cases revolve around the issue of whether evidence that the government seeks to introduce at the trial of the case was legally obtained. The defendant may argue that a particular search was violative of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. If the court agrees that police violated the defendant’s constitutional rights with regard to a certain search, the evidence obtained through that illegal search must be excluded from the jury’s consideration because it is the “fruit” of the “poisonous tree.” Without the evidence that can no longer be submitted at trial, the government’s case against the defendant may be much weaker, or perhaps non-existent.

Facts of the Case

In a recent case, the defendant was arrested on a drug trafficking charge. He filed a motion to suppress evidence found in his vehicle by police, insisting that the evidence was the fruit of an illegal search. According to the defendant, the exit order given to him by the police officer who stopped him was illegal, and thus the evidence found by the officer after the defendant stepped out of the vehicle should have been excluded. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress, and he appealed to the intermediate appellate court. That court reversed the lower tribunal’s denial of the defendant’s motion. The Commonwealth sought further review from the state’s highest court.

Decision of the Court

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the court of appeals’ reversal of the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to suppress, holding that exit order was not lawfully issued and that, therefore, the evidence obtained by the search should have been suppressed as the fruit of the poisonous tree.

The court began by stating that an exit order cannot be constitutionally justified solely based on a traffic violation. Rather, there must have been some event or observation made by the officer after the defendant’s vehicle has been stopped; this can include a belief by the officer that his or her (or someone else’s) safety has been threatened, a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, or a search of the vehicle on other grounds (such as in execution of a search warrant).

Here, police had been “tipped” that a vehicle similar to the defendant’s would be in a certain location with a large amount of narcotics inside, but, according to the supreme judicial court, the limited observations made by the officer prior to the stop did not amount to “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity. The court held that the “safety concern” exception was likewise inapplicable, noting that, after being stopped, the defendant, though “nervous,” complied with all requests made by the officer and did not make any movements consistent with reaching for a weapon after the vehicle was stopped.

If You Have Been Arrested in Cape Cod

The laws of evidence, criminal procedure, and constitutional law are ever evolving. Even veteran police officers can make mistakes during an investigation, arrest, or search. If you have been arrested and need to talk to a knowledgeable Cape Cod criminal defense lawyer, please do not hesitate to contact us for advice. You can reach the Law Offices of John C. Manoog III, by calling 888-262-6664; we’ll be glad to set up a time to discuss your case.

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