traffic stop by police

On June 8, 2020 the Massachusetts Appeals Court issued a decision that upholds the SJC’sprevious ruling that, absent information that the driver is not the owner, police have reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle registered to an owner who does not have a valid driver’s license. This new decision also aligns with the recent Supreme Court of the United States ruling in Kansas v Glover, 140 S. Ct. 1183 (2020). You can read further about that ruling and its impacts here.

In the case at hand, Commonwealth vs. Mario Puac-Cuc, 97 Mass. App. Ct. 590, 591 (2020), Sergeant Hurton of the Framingham Police Department initiated a traffic stop on April 29, 2018 after he had run the plates of the vehicle being driven in front of him and found the registered owner did not have a valid license. Sergeant Hurton executed a stop, admittedly without having observed the driver. The operator was not the registered owner, and also did not have a license on him, but provided his name and date of birth. The operator was subsequently arrested for OUI and operating without a license.

The Commonwealth had moved for interlocutory appeal following a motion for reconsideration of a decision made by the District Court suppressing evidence discovered during the course of a traffic stop. Before trial, Puac-Cuc moved to suppress evidence from the stop, and the judge agreed, finding, “No objective reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify stop.” Puac-Cuc, 97 Mass. App. Ct. at 591. Upon a motion for reconsideration, the judge found that based upon testimony, the stop was pretextual. Id. It was upon these two rulings the motion was reviewed in appeal.

Objective Reasonable Suspicion of Criminal Activity

It has been settled that a vehicle may be pulled over for a threshold inquiry, which requires nothing more than reasonable suspicion that a crime or traffic violation is currently occurring or has or will occur. Commonwealth v. Garden, 451 Mass. 45, 46 (2008). Further, it has been found in both the courts of Massachusetts and the Supreme Court that a vehicle registered to an owner without a valid license offers reasonable suspicion for a stop consistent with the Fourth Amendment and Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

In Commonwealth v. Deramo, the court held that reasonable suspicion is satisfied so long as there was no contrary evidence that the driver was not the registered owner. 436 Mass at 43 (2002). The Supreme Court similarly held in Glover that it was reasonable for the arresting officer to infer that the driver would be the registered owner even though the arresting officer did not see the driver prior to initiating a stop. 140 S. Ct. at 1188-1189.. Id.

Based upon the precedent set in these two cases and in light of the factual record, the Appeals Court held that there were “no facts known to the officer that would have undermined the inference that the driver was the vehicle’s owner”; the officer did not see the defendant until the officer had stopped the vehicle and approached it on foot, and the officer observed that the defendant was the same sex as the owner. Thus, the court held that there was reasonable suspicion for the stop, and no basis for suppression. This decision, however, still leaves room for a defense on a case by case basis, where additional facts would outweigh a presumption or inference by the officer, for instance a distinct difference in age and gender between the operator and registered owner. Id. at 1191.

Pretextual Stop

The trial judge’s finding on reconsideration stated that the stop was pretextual. The Appeals Court did not have enough information in the record to respond to this on appeal. The trial judge’s finding stood absent any argument from the defendant that the stop was based on race or other factors.This opinion renders pretextual stops not unlawful, citing Commonwealth v. Buckley, 478 Mass. 861, 866-873 (2018). So long as there is some lawful justification, the police may have a different, subjective purpose than that which is proffered as the basis for the stop. Buckley challenged this due to the susceptibility of permissible pretext to racial profiling. Where Puac-Cuc declined to pursue an argument on this basis, the pretext issue was not addressed further on appeal.