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Can Massachusetts Police Officers Assume a Driver Is the Vehicle’s Owner When Deciding Whether to Pull Someone Over?

Police officers make assumptions every single day. For example, a police officer may observe a motorist drift over the center line once or twice and assume that the driver is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In this example, the officer relies on the assumption that a driver is intoxicated because they are not able to maintain a single lane of travel.

Massachusetts criminal law allows police officers to make certain assumptions, within reason. Recently, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case involving whether police officers can assume that the driver of a vehicle is also the owner of the vehicle. The case is important for Boston criminal defense lawyers and their clients to understand because, if the court sides with the prosecution, police officers across the country can make similar assumptions when deciding whether to pull over a vehicle.

The case arose after a police officer ran the tags on a pick-up truck and noticed that the owner of the truck had a suspended license. Assuming that the driver of the vehicle was the vehicle’s owner, the officer initiated a traffic stop. During the stop, the officer confirmed that the defendant owned the vehicle and then issued him a citation.

The defendant contested the citation, arguing that the police officer lacked any probable cause or reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop. The defendant went on to argue that any evidence that the officer obtained as a result of the impermissible stop should be suppressed because it was “fruit of the poisonous tree.”

The trial court agreed with the defendant and granted his motion to suppress, finding that the inference made by the police officer was not a reasonable one. The prosecution appealed, and the intermediate appellate court reversed the lower court’s decision. The defendant then appealed the case to the state supreme court, which agreed with the trial court, reversing the intermediate court of appeals. That court held that the police officer relied on “stacked assumptions” that resulted in the prosecution being relieved of its duty to establish that an officer had sufficient cause to pull over a motorist.

In the most recent update, the prosecution appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on April 1, 2019. The Court heard oral arguments on November 4, and it is expected to release an opinion in the first half of the upcoming year.

Have You Been Arrested for a Crime After a Traffic Stop?

If you have recently been arrested and charged with driving with a suspended license, or any other motor vehicle offense, contact Attorney Patrick J. Murphy for immediate assistance. Attorney Murphy is a well-respected criminal defense attorney who represents clients in all types of Boston felony and misdemeanor cases, including gun charges, assault offenses, and theft crimes. Attorney Murphy understands the stress and anxiety that accompany serious criminal charges, and he guides his clients through the process at each step of the way. To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation with Attorney Murphy to discuss your situation, call 617-367-0450 today.