The highest court in Massachusetts ruled on an important Fourth Amendment search and seizure case last week. The case concerns an incident in 2015 when a driver in Holyoke was stopped by police officers. The officer then asked the driver if there were any drugs or guns “in the vehicle.” The driver responded, “No, you can check,” thereby providing police consent to search the vehicle, or at least the interior and trunk of the vehicle, according to the driver.
Police then removed all three passengers from the vehicle and brought a K-9 unit to the vehicle, meant to smell both drugs and firearms. The police dog did not indicate any contraband in the car. However, the officers proceeded to search not only the interior and trunk of the vehicle but also underneath the hood of the car – including the air filter inside the engine.
While the search of the interior of the car and its trunk did not turn up any illegal contraband, once the police popped the hood and searched the air filter, they located a black bag containing two firearms. While the driver admitted to granting the police consent to search his vehicle, he did not consent for the police to search underneath the hood of the car, and especially not the air filter in his engine.
The outraged driver said he never consented to have the hood of his vehicle searched. In a divided opinion, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts agreed with the driver.
According to Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, “a typical reasonable person would understand the scope of such consent to be limited to a search of the interior of the vehicle, including the trunk – not the engine compartment.”
Justice Gant further writes, “The most generous understanding of the defendant’s consent, in this case, is that it was ambiguous whether it included the engine area under the hood and whether it authorized the police to remove the air filter. But the police are not allowed to take advantage of such ambiguity when they have the ability to resolve it with clarifying questions.” Therefore, the search would have been perfectly acceptable if the cops had only asked the driver if they could search under the hood, and the driver had acquiesced to their request.
In the dissent, authored by Justice Ellie Cypher, she failed to see the difference between the trunk and the engine – if the driver consented to having the trunk searched, then why would an engine not apply under the same logic? In her opinion, “Both are beyond the passenger compartment and must be opened separately.”
Going forward in Massachusetts, if a person grants permission to a police officer to search his or her vehicle, it is likely to only include the interior of the car and the trunk. If a police officer wants to search underneath the hood of the vehicle, then he or she should also get explicit permission from the driver, absent any exigent circumstances. The driver’s conviction for possession of firearms was thrown out as a consequence of the search and seizure, illegal under the Massachusetts Constitution.