The Validity Of An Inventory Search Turns On The Propriety Of The Underlying Impoundment Decision
- Steven Topazio wrote this March 13, 2020 at 7:31 pm
In the case of Commonwealth vs. Wilson Goncalves-Mendez, 484 Mass. 80 (2020), the SJC affirmed the allowance of the defendant’s motion to suppress, because the impoundment of his motor vehicle was found to be unreasonable in light of his “passenger’s availability to drive and the failure by police to ask the defendant whether the passenger taking custody of the vehicle would be a preferred alternative.” The court held that when the police are aware that a passenger lawfully can assume custody of a vehicle, then it is improper for the police to impound the vehicle without first offering this option to the driver to allow the passenger to take the vehicle.
The facts in the Goncalves-Mendez case established that the police properly stopped the defendant who was driving his motor vehicle for a valid moving violation. The defendant driver was subsequently arrested after the police discovered that he had an outstanding warrant. The officers ascertained that the sole passenger was a duly licensed and otherwise a qualified driver. The passenger was not impaired, was properly licensed to drive in Massachusetts, and had no outstanding warrants. Rather than ask the defendant whether he wanted his passenger to take custody of and later move the motor vehicle from its location on a busy residential road to a safe spot, the police arranged for it to be impounded. Once the motor vehicle was impounded, the police conducted an inventory search and discovered a gun under the driver’s seat. The defendant told the police that the gun belonged to him.
The defendant’s gun and his statements thereafter were suppressed by the court in part because the impoundment was found by the motion judge to be unreasonable in the face of the passenger’s availability to drive and the failure by police to ask the defendant whether the passenger taking custody of the vehicle would be a preferred alternative. After the defendant was charged with multiple firearm violations, he filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized during the inventory search, as well as his statements to police, “on the ground that both were fruits of an unlawful search.”
If a warrantless inventory search is found to be invalid, the evidence and statements will be suppressed. “The general rule is that evidence is to be excluded if it is found to be the ‘fruit’ of a police officer’s unlawful actions”. See Commonwealth v. Balicki, 436 Mass. 1, 15 (2002). The exclusionary rule serves to preserve “the integrity of the law” and to deter future constitutional violations. See Commonwealth v. Gomes, 408 Mass. 43, 46 (1990).
When an inventory search is challenged, the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving that the warrantless inventory search is lawful. Commonwealth v. Oliveira, 474 Mass. 10, 13 (2016). “A lawful inventory search is contingent on the propriety of the impoundment of the [vehicle].” Id., quoting Commonwealth v. Brinson, 440 Mass. 609, 612 (2003). Impoundment must be undertaken for a legitimate, noninvestigative purpose, and must be “reasonably necessary based on the totality of the evidence.” Oliveira, supra at 13-14.
The propriety of an impoundment turns on whether police reasonably could have concluded they had no lawful, practical alternative. In the court’s previous decisions, where impoundment was deemed reasonable notwithstanding the presence of a passenger, the court based its decision on the fact that the passenger was unable lawfully to assume custody of the vehicle for other valid reasons. See Commonwealth v. Eddington, 459 Mass. 102, 109-110 (2011) (passenger had been observed drinking); Commonwealth v. Ellerbe, 430 Mass. 769, 775-776 (2000) (passenger did not have valid driver’s license available); Commonwealth v. Caceres, 413 Mass. 749, 751-752 (1992) (passenger was not authorized to drive in Massachusetts); Commonwealth v. Garcia, 409 Mass. 675, 676-677 (1991) (passenger had outstanding warrants).
The court in Goncalves-Mendez also found that Boston police did not consider the alternatives to impoundment available under their motor vehicle inventory policy. One option enumerated in the policy when officers arrest a driver is to “leave [the vehicle] with a person having apparent authority to assume control of it.” Boston Police Department Rules and Procedures, Rule 103 § 31 (1984). Unlike when a vehicle is impounded, no inventory search is conducted in those circumstances, because there is no risk of false claims against the police or the towing company. The arresting officer in Goncalves-Mendez evidently believed that the Boston police impoundment policy was to tow a vehicle when it was not lawfully parked and that the policy required an arrested driver affirmatively to request that custody be given to another individual before police were required to release the vehicle to that person. The court found that it was not the obligation of the defendant to ask that someone else take his motor vehicle, but rather the police should have inquired about alternatives to impoundment, at least where a passenger is present who lawfully could assume custody of the vehicle.
When the police are aware that a passenger lawfully could assume custody of a vehicle, it is improper to impound the vehicle without first offering this option to the driver. Absent such an inquiry, the police cannot conclude that impoundment is “reasonably necessary.”