Commonwealth v. Goncalves-Mendez: Police Must Permit Passengers to Drive Vehicle Away Upon Driver's Arrest

In a recent ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in Commonwealth v. Goncalves, it was found that prior to impoundment, the police have an affirmative duty to offer to the driver that a legally capable passenger may assume custody of a vehicle. Further, if impoundment was not reasonably necessary, any inventory conducted in preparation to impound constitutes an unlawful search.

In Commonwealth v. Goncalves, a vehicle was observed being driven with what appeared to be a defective brake light. The officers who saw this ran the registration and found that the owner and operator had an outstanding default warrant. The vehicle was stopped and Goncalves-Mendez, the driver, was placed under arrest.

Along with Goncalves-Mendez, there was a passenger who was found to have a valid license, no warrants, was not a suspect in other crimes and did not appear to be under the influence. The police did not offer, and Goncalves-Mendez did not ask if the passenger could drive the car from the scene. Goncalves-Mendez was told that due to his warrant, he would be placed under arrest and his vehicle “would be towed”. A routine search of the vehicle conducted prior to impoundment yielded a firearm, which Goncalves-Mendez claimed to own. He was subsequently charged with multiple firearms violations.

During the trial, Goncalves-Mendez moved to suppress the evidence found during the search of the vehicle and all subsequent statements on the grounds that the search itself was illegal. A Boston Municipal Court judge found in his favor. The Commonwealth pursued an interlocutory appeal, which was granted. Goncalves-Mendez sought and was granted direct appellate review, which placed the motion with the SJC.

The questions to be answered were: Was the search unlawful and should the evidence be excluded? The SJC found that the answer to both was “yes”.

Under Commonwealth v. Oliviera, 474 Mass. 10, 13 (2016), an inventory search is lawful when it follows a properly conducted impoundment. To be proper, impoundment must be “reasonably necessary based on the totality of the evidence” and not for investigatory purposes. Id. at 13-14. Had Goncalves-Mendez requested a practical and legal alternative to his vehicle being impounded, the arresting officers would have been required to honor his request. Id. at 15. According to their training, officers have the option to leave a vehicle with a person having the “apparent authority to take control of it.” Boston Police Department Rules and Procedures, Rule 103 § 31 (1984). Inventory of a vehicle only occurs to protect the police and towing company from false claims. Thus, absent a seizure of the vehicle, the search would not have occurred.

The Commonwealth argued that the court has never placed an affirmative duty on the police to inquire about alternatives. The SJC concluded in its ruling on this motion that where there is a legally capable passenger who could assume custody of a vehicle, it is not “reasonably necessary” to impound a vehicle without first offering this option to the driver.

The court went further, to find on the second question, that evidence found during the search of Goncalves-Mendez's vehicle is properly suppressed. Evidence found to be the “fruit” of police officers’ unlawful actions is properly excluded as it serves to preserve the integrity of the law and deter misconduct in the future. Commonwealth v. Gomes, 408 Mass. 46 (1990). Goncalves-Mendez's statements, as the product of an unlawful search, are also properly excluded.

The finding of the SJC places a duty on officers to offer a driver reasonable alternatives to having their vehicle impounded. This decision not only clarifies officers’ responsibility to ensure impoundment is reasonably necessary, it also furthers a constitutionally guaranteed protection against illegal searches.