In a significant decision released today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court adopted an argument we had advanced as amici along with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the New England Innocence Project. The Court concluded the police resolved a traffic infraction by asking the driver to pull ahead, which he did. Thus, they had no authority to stop the car a second time, a pretextual stop based on a hunch for an otherwise unsupported criminal investigation justified by the already-resolved traffic infraction.
Our coalition urged the Court to go further and find pretextual stops categorically unreasonable under art. 14. Although the SJC didn’t reach that question, the unanimous decision expressed some doubt about police authority for objectively pretextual stops. Since Mr. Daveiga prevailed on the suppression issue, the Court understandably did not reach the issue of prejudicial demeanor evidence introduced at trial. However, Justice Gaziano’s opinion for a unanimous court did note the defendant’s “reasonable frustration” at the police:
“The defendant’s interests, following the initial encounter, are particularly compelling in this case where the objective circumstances so obviously show, as both parties agree, that the actual traffic stop was a pretext. See Mendonca, 682 F. Supp. 2d at 104 (objective circumstances showed traffic stop was obvious pretext, ending police authority to conduct it). Because the traffic violation already had been resolved, the defendant had even more reason to expect that police would not extend their intrusion than had the defendants in Torres and Cordero, where police conducted a traffic stop after observing a traffic violation, but prolonged the defendant’s detention to investigate other suspicions. By contrast, here, the police clearly indicated that their traffic-related investigation was complete. The defendant’s reasonable frustration at the subsequent police conduct is compounded where, as here, the defendant was a ‘passenger in the stopped vehicle’ and not the driver who committed the traffic violation.”
Although the Court didn’t reach our broader argument to find pretextual stops categorically unreasonable, the Court’s holding relied squarely on the first argument in the amicus (and lifted cases and quotes directly from our coalition brief). The Court found that the police lacked authority to stop the car in which the defendant was a passenger a second time after letting the car go without a citation when it moved from the position where the police said it was blocking the road, thereby resolving the violation. Although less sweeping than our brief had argued, the opinion opens potential directions for future challenges to police authority to make objectively pretextual stops.
This case also reveals a need for early review of denials of motions to suppress. Mr. Daveiga sought interlocutory review, but it was denied in September 2018. He was then tried and sentenced to eight years in prison. At the time his appeal was decided, and his conviction overturned, he had served ~3.5 years plus 320 days in jail for an illegal police stop. Many thanks to CPCS, ACLUM, MACDL, and NEIP for collaborating to challenge police using the pretext of a civil traffic stop for an unrelated, unsupported criminal investigation—a tactic which targets people and communities of color.
Read the Court’s (amended) opinion: