Commonwealth v. Jones: Inspection Stickers and Reasonable Suspicion to Stop a Vehicle

In the case of Commonwealth v. Jones, decided on January 7, 2022, the Massachusetts Appeals Court addressed whether the police had reasonable suspicion to justify stopping the defendant for committing a civil motor vehicle infraction based on their good faith, but incorrect, belief that the car could not be operated lawfully without an inspection sticker. In Jones, the police observed the defendant driving a vehicle that did not have an inspection sticker on its windshield. Because the police suspected, based on the vehicle not having an inspection sticker on the windshield, that the defendant was operating the vehicle illegally, one officer activated the police cruiser’s emergency lights to signal the defendant to pull over. Another officer in the passenger seat queried the vehicle's license plate number on the cruiser's mobile data terminal (MDT) in order to access information about "the car's registration, insurance status, [and] whether the car was stolen or had attached plates." Ultimately, the defendant pulled over and, after approaching the defendant’s vehicle, police allegedly noticed the odor of an alcoholic beverage on the defendant's breath and a partially full container of beer in the vehicle. The defendant was subsequently arrested for operating under the influence of intoxicating liquor (OUI) in violation of M.G.L. c. 90, § 24.

Reasonable Suspicion Requirement For Motor Vehicle Stops

The Court in Jones recognized that where police have observed a traffic violation, they are permitted to stop a motor vehicle. However, the Court also recognized, citing well-settled precedent, that a police stop of a moving automobile is a seizure, and must comply with the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and with article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. In order for a stop to be in compliance with state and federal constitutional principles, the Court noted that police must have “reasonable suspicion” to conduct the stop. As a result, the Court’s analysis in Jones was based on whether police had “reasonable suspicion” to stop the defendant’s car. In this case, the police stopped the defendant because they suspected the defendant was illegally operating the vehicle based on the fact the vehicle did not have an inspection sticker on its windshield.

Reasonable Suspicion to Stop a Motor Vehicle Without Inspection Sticker

Under Massachusetts law, specifically G. L. c. 90, § 7A, motor vehicles must undergo annual safety inspections according to rules and regulations established by the Registrar of Motor Vehicles. The results of these inspections are displayed on a certificate, commonly referred to as an "inspection sticker," which is affixed to the vehicle's windshield. The regulations require an initial inspection after a vehicle is registered, and mandate subsequent annual inspections on or before the expiration of the vehicle's existing certificate. Under 540 Code Mass. Regs. § 4.03(1)(a), the initial inspection must be performed within seven days from when a newly-acquired vehicle is registered. As a result, there is a seven day grace period to obtain this initial inspection. Thus, there is a seven-day window where a person may operate a newly-acquired, newly-registered, vehicle without an inspection sticker.

In Jones, the police observed the defendant operating a vehicle without an inspection sticker, however, by using the cruiser's mobile data terminal, they were able to determine the defendant's car had been properly registered no more than seven days earlier. As a result, the defendant was legally operating the vehicle despite the fact that it did not have an inspection sticker. The Court held that the stop was unlawful because information that would have corrected the polices' mistake, specifically the information about when the vehicle was registered, which was available to them in their cruiser before they initiated the stop. As a result, the Court reversed the order that the police did not have a legal basis to stop the vehicle and ordered that the defendant's prior motion to suppress the stop should have been allowed.

The Court distinguished the facts in Jones from other cases where the police “not only did not know whether the defendant was operating lawfully or unlawfully but that they could not have known that information without stopping the car.” In those cases where the police could not determine whether a person was operating the vehicle lawfully or unlawfully without stopping the vehicle, the Court concluded that reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify a traffic stop existed. In Jones, on the other hand, the police had access to information in their cruiser, prior to the stop, that alerted them to the fact that the defendant was operating the vehicle lawfully, even though no inspection sticker was attached to the vehicle. This, the Court said, was unreasonable.

In conclusion, the Court’s holding in Jones is significant because if police have access to information that would have corrected a mistaken belief that a defendant was operating a vehicle illegally before they initiated a stop, like information about when a vehicle was registered, then a Court could find that the stop was unreasonable for constitutional purposes.

If you have been stopped by the police and are now facing criminal charges, it is crucial that you work with an experienced attorney to determine whether the police acted illegally. Contact The Law Offices of Joseph D. Bernard today for a free consultation to discuss your case.