On July 26, 2019,the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court took the unusual step of overturning a trial court order denying the defendant's motion to suppress. The trial court in a criminal case has the authority to exclude from evidence any evidence that is obtained illegally. However, the rules governing police conduct in the acquisition of evidence are so shot through with exceptions that any trial judge who is inclined to uphold the conduct of the police as a general matter will probably be able to find an exception that fits any case in front of him/her. On appeal, the court of appeals and the SJC usually defer to the trial court, saying that whatever their view of the evidence may be, it is for the trial court to make determinations about credibility of the evidence.
It is not terribly uncommon for the SJC to reverse a trial court's order granting a motion to suppress evidence, but it is extremely unusual for the SJC to reverse a trial court's order denying one. That's what it did in Commonwealth v. Tavares.
In Commonwealth v. Tavares, the police were investigating a murder, and received information that a Chevy Malibu had been involved. The next day, an officer saw a Chevy Malibu and pulled it over. He could not justify the stop of the Malibu on the basis of the murder investigation because there are thousands of such vehicle, and this one didn't even fit the description. However, the officer decided to stop the Malibu anyway because he said that he saw someone in the back seat that he had a warrant for.
After he stopped the Malibu, as he was walking up, the officer realized that the person he had a warrant to arrest was not present. The officer then engaged in small talk with the driver, and learned that the Malibu was a rental, and that no one in the car was listed on the rental agreement. He then told everyone to get out, and held the car to be picked up and returned to the rental company. After that, a witness identified it as the vehicle involved in the murder, at which point the police got a warrant to search it.
The SJC held that "the stop should have concluded as soon as Detective Schaaf realized he had mistakenly identified the rear passenger, and nothing else had caused concern." The SJC also held that the Detectiv's knowledge that the vehicle was rented "derived solely from an 'investigatory conversation for which [he] had no lawful basis.'" Therefore, the reason to order its occupants out, and search the car, was itself derived from the unlawful continued seizure of the vehicle and its occupants after the Detective realized he had no reason to hold them.
Here, the SJC came very close to -- but held back from -- establishing a rule that the fact that a person other than the one listed on the rental agreement is driving a vehicle establishes probable cause for the charge of using a motor vehicle without authority. This is a favorite trick of the Boston Police, in particular. Boston Police routinely pull over rented vehicles for minor or made up traffic infractions because they think that rental vehicles are often used to transport drugs. They then use the stop to try to generate a reason to arrest the driver and search the car, hoping to find drugs. They are wrong because most rental agreements explicitly permit the renter to give permission to any licensed driver, but the police just ignore that part of the contract and say that the rental is limited to the person whose name appears on the paperwork.
This trick has been used to justify countless unlawful stops and searches. The SJC almost had a chance to address the issue, but ultimately passed because whether the renter had the right to lend the car to a friend or not, that fact was the fruit of the unlawful detention of the vehicle and its occupants, so even if the police were right about their reading of the law, it didn't matter.
As a result, Mr. Paulo Tavares will have a retrial of his 2011 murder conviction.
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