Supreme Court Changes Rules on Impounding a Vehicle
Last week Massachusetts’ highest court issued a decision that will change the rules of impoundment. This decision will impact your rights if you are pulled over for a motor vehicle violation.
What is Impoundment?
Impoundment occurs when the police take legal custody of something after a crime is committed. It often takes place during motor vehicle stops when a person is arrested. When this occurs, police typically will call for a tow truck to take the car away to the police station where it may be searched. Vehicles may also be searched on the scene after it is determined that the car is being impounded.
What Happens After a Car is Impounded?
Massachusetts courts agree that when a motor vehicle is impounded it is subject to something called an inventory search. This search allows police to look through the contents of a vehicle without a warrant. Any evidence of a crime found during this search can be used against someone in court.
Why are the Rules Changing?
The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently considered a case involving impoundment and a person’s constitutional rights.
In this case, a defendant and his passenger were pulled over by police for a broken brake light. Police later learned that the person driving the car had a warrant out for his arrest. The defendant was arrested, but his passenger was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Police then determined that the car needed to be impounded. They called for a tow and conducted an inventory search of the vehicle on the scene. One officer found a gun in the car and this led to multiple firearms charges.
What is the Legal Issue?
The court needed to determine if police acted properly when they impounded the vehicle. Specifically, they needed to determine if the inventory search was not in violation of a person’s constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches.
According to the court, an impoundment is only permissible when it occurs for legitimate, non-investigation purposes. It is the burden of the government to show that an impoundment is “reasonably necessary” based on all the evidence.
What did the Court Say?
The court decided that just because the defendant did not specifically request that his passenger move the vehicle from the scene of the arrest to a safe location does not mean the impoundment was lawful. They added that since the passenger was not in any violation of the law it would have been safe, reasonable, and necessary to ask if he would move the vehicle as an alternative to impoundment.
How Does this Impact You?
Going forward, police must ask an arrested driver whether they want a passenger to drive their vehicle to a safe location before authorities can decide whether it’s “reasonably necessary” to impound and conduct an inventory search.
It is important to remember that you have constitutional rights and those rights exist even when you encounter law enforcement.
IF YOU OR A LOVED ONE HAVE A QUESTION ABOUT IMPOUNDMENT OR A SEARCH, AND YOU NEED AN EXPERIENCED CRIMINAL DEFENSE LAWYER WORKING ON YOUR SIDE TO PROTECT YOUR RIGHTS, PLEASE CONTACT CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY WILLIAM J. BARABINO.
CALL 781-393-5900 TO LEARN MORE ABOUT YOUR AVAILABLE DEFENSES.