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Massachusetts Court Condones Officer’s Approach and Questioning of Motorist Based on “Community Caretaking” Function of Police

As a general matter, police officers must be justified in their approach and questioning of a person. This includes both pedestrian stops as well as motor vehicle stops. Typically, an officer must be able to present articulable facts supporting the officer’s reasonable suspicion that the person who was stopped had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime.

Massachusetts courts have held, however, that when an officer is not investigating a crime but instead checking in on the wellbeing of a person (or the occupants of a vehicle) the questioning does not need to be supported by probable cause or reasonable suspicion. This is known as the community-caretaking exception. A few years ago, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a Massachusetts drug possession case discussing the community-caretaking exception. The case also provides an in-depth discussion of Massachusetts law as it pertains to drug-sniffing dogs.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant ran out of gas while driving on Route 140. A state trooper saw the defendant’s vehicle move into the breakdown lane with the hazard lights flashing so the trooper pulled behind it, engaging the cruiser’s blue emergency lights. The defendant exited his vehicle, explained he was out of gas, and asked what he should do. The defendant then called and asked a friend to bring him some gas.

Evidently, while the defendant and the trooper were waiting for the defendant’s friend to arrive, the trooper engaged the defendant in conversation. Throughout the conversation, the trooper noticed that the defendant seemed nervous. The trooper eventually asked for the defendant’s license and registration, and confirmed that the defendant did not have any warrants and that the vehicle was not stolen. The trooper then asked the defendant if he could walk his drug-sniffing dog around the defendant’s car. The defendant did not object, and the dog alerted to the driver’s side of the vehicle. A large quantity of narcotics was then recovered from a hidden compartment near the vehicle’s gas tank.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the drugs, arguing that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to question him. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, and the prosecution appealed.

On appeal, the case was reversed. The court explained that the officer’s initial approach of the defendant’s stopped vehicle was permitted because it was an exercise of the officer’s community-caretaking function. The court explained that “a check by a police officer on the status of a vehicle and its occupants falls within the scope of the community-caretaking function when its purpose is to protect the well-being of the vehicle’s occupants and the public.” However, the officer’s actions must be “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence” relating to a crime.

Here, the court held that the officer initially approached the defendant’s vehicle because it seemed as though the car had broken down on the side of the highway. The court went on to explain that the officer was permitted to ask limited questions during the encounter and did not extend the duration of the traffic stop. It was during this time that the defendant voluntarily consented to allow the officer to take the dog around the car. Thus, the court determined that the officer’s conduct was permissible, and that the defendant’s motion should not have been granted.

Have You Been Arrested After a Questionable Search?

If you have recently been arrested and charged with a Massachusetts gun or drug crime after a questionable police search, you should contact the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy to discuss your case and how he can help you. Attorney Murphy is a veteran Boston criminal defense attorney with over 22 years of experience defending the rights of those charged with serious crimes in and around the Boston area. To learn more about how Attorney Murphy can help you defend against the charges you are facing, call 617-367-0450 to schedule a free consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Court Approves Search Warrant in Drug Case Involving Confidential Informant, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published November 6, 2018

Court Suppresses Evidence Found During Police Officer’s Search That Was Conducted Before a Warrant Was Issued, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published November 21, 2018