Massachusetts Court Reverses Murder Conviction Based on Illegal Seizure of Car

Earlier this year, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Massachusetts murder case resulting in the court’s reversal of the defendant’s murder conviction. The court based its reversal on the improper denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress identification and finger-print evidence that was obtained as a result of an illegal car stop.

According to the court’s opinion, police were investigating a murder that had occurred the night before. Evidently, one man was shot to death as he was driving by another car. A witness identified the vehicle as a Chevy Malibu. Detectives spoke to the witness, who explained that the car should have fresh scrapes under the vehicle as a result of it hopping a curb as it fled the scene.

The day following the murder, police officers observed a Chevy Malibu that loosely matched the description given by the witness. The officers followed the car, thinking they recognized the back-seat passenger as someone they knew to have an active warrant. The officers stopped the vehicle and, as they approached, realized that the rear passenger was not the man with the warrant. Nonetheless, the officers initiated small talk with the driver, asking for his license. The driver provided his license, which was valid, and then the officers asked if the car was rented. The driver responded affirmatively, and the officers asked for the rental agreement. No one in the car was on the rental agreement, so the officers towed the car.

Once the car was back at the police station, the officers called the witness to take a look at the vehicle to see if it was the same one allegedly involved in the murder. The witness claimed that it was the same car, and told the detective that there should be fresh scrape marks under the front of the car. When officers checked, they observed what appeared to be fresh scrape marks.

The defendant, who was the front passenger of the Chevy Malibu, moved to suppress the witness’ identification of the car, the observation of the scrape marks, as well as the fingerprint evidence obtained from the car. The trial court denied the motion, and the defendant appealed.

On appeal, the court reversed the defendant’s conviction, in part based on the improper denial of the motion to suppress. The court explained that, while the initial stop was valid because the officer thought they observed a man they knew to have an active warrant, there was no justification to ask for the car’s rental agreement. The court explained that a police officer cannot prolong a traffic stop in an attempt to gain information unrelated to the stop, which is precisely what the court determined the officers did here. Thus, the court held that the seizure of the car was tainted, as was any evidence stemming from that seizure.

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