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Commonwealth v. Williams

Superior Court of Massachusetts, Worcester

February 18, 2016

Commonwealth
v.
Quinbon Williams et al. [1] No. 132974

          FINDINGS OF FACT, RULINGS OF LAW AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO SUPPRESS

          Shannon Frison, J.

         The defendants were indicted on charges of Trafficking Heroin of more than 36 grams and less than 100 grams. Their Motions to Suppress Evidence were heard on January 25 and 26, 2016 in Worcester County. This case represents a motor vehicle stop that escalated to an investigatory search without probable cause. The search of the vehicle involved was based almost solely on a hunch, and the searches of the vehicle and occupants were improper and illegal at every stage of the interaction. For the reasons below, the motions are ALLOWED .

         FINDINGS OF FACT

         The Court finds the following facts based upon the testimony of Massachusetts State Police Troopers Alena Sullivan (" Trooper Sullivan"), Thomas Eliason (" Trooper Eliason"), and James Bazzinotti (" Sergeant Bazzinotti").

         On Tuesday, June 2, 2015, Trooper Sullivan observed a motor vehicle traveling in the middle lane of Route 495 Northbound in Southborough, Massachusetts. She followed that vehicle for approximately two miles and estimated its speed to be, at various points, between eighty-two and eighty-three miles per hour in a sixty-five mile-per-hour speed zone. Trooper Sullivan activated her police cruiser lights and pulled that vehicle over to the shoulder of the highway. She then approached the driver side of the vehicle and noted that there were a total of four people in the vehicle. Trooper Sullivan was the only police personnel on the scene at that time.

         The operator of the vehicle, defendant Mr. Marquis Moore (" Moore"), seemed confused and asked why he was stopped. Trooper Sullivan told him he was pulled over for speeding. Moore had and provided a valid driver's license from the state of New York upon request. He also provided a rental agreement from Hertz rental cars. The back seat passengers in the vehicle were not wearing seat belts. Defendant Ms. Trishana Singh (" Singh") was the front seat passenger. Defendants Mr. Elijah Russaw (" Russaw") and Mr. Quinbon Williams (" Williams") were seated in the back of the vehicle. Each passenger provided valid driver's licenses from the state of New York. The renter on the Hertz agreement was one Mr. Deran Thomas (" Thomas"), who was not present in the vehicle. The rental agreement also appeared, at that time, to be expired. Moore told the trooper that Thomas was the renter, and that he was a friend who had allowed him to use the vehicle.

         Trooper Sullivan requested additional cruisers to assist her. She then notified all of the occupants that the vehicle was going to be towed. At that time, Trooper Sullivan intended to summons Moore for the criminal charge of Use of Motor Vehicle Without Authority. Sergeant Bazzinotti and Troopers Bertozzi, Mather, and Nunes arrived to assist her. Trooper Sullivan called Hertz and learned that the rental agreement with Thomas was extended and was not expired. However, no other names were listed as drivers on the agreement with Hertz.

         Trooper Sullivan decided that she would tow the vehicle because none of the occupants were listed on the rental agreement. The troopers ordered all of the defendants out of the vehicle and pat-frisked each one of them. After being searched, all four individuals were placed in the back of four different locked police cruisers. None of the occupants were under arrest at that time, but they were not free to leave. Despite that fact, Trooper Sullivan stated on the radio to dispatch that she had " four parties in custody."

         Mr. Moore also told the troopers that there was another rental agreement in the car, which they found in the console. That agreement was consistent with the information obtained by Trooper Sullivan that the rental was extended and currently valid.

         Trooper Sullivan then began a search of the vehicle that she considered to be an inventory search in compliance with the State Police Vehicle Inventory policy. Trooper Sullivan searched the interior of the car and found that she could not open the locked glove compartment. The trunk of the vehicle was also locked and closed. Sergeant Bazzinotti directed that the trunk be unlocked and opened. He then searched the trunk and recovered a plaster canister of white powdery substance with a plastic baggie tied off at the top of it that also contained a white powdery substance. Trooper Sullivan (who had been on the force for roughly eight months at that time) and Sergeant Bazzinoti believed one of the substances to be cocaine and one to be a cutting agent commonly used when packaging cocaine for distribution. Although Sergeant Bazzinotti had a field test with him in his cruiser, he did not test any of the substances at the scene. The four occupants of the vehicle were all placed under arrest without the benefit of that testing.

         The troopers then prepared to tow the vehicle. The white powdery substance was taken back to the State Police barracks in Millbury. Trooper Bazzinotti and Trooper Nunes " field tested" the substance at the barracks, and the substance apparently tested positive for cocaine. That field test has been discarded by Trooper Sullivan and is no longer available for review. Later, and before the grand jury, an actual laboratory analysis of the substance determined that cocaine was not present in that white powdery substance.

         Trooper Sullivan booked all of the defendants at the barracks. She recovered no evidence during the searches attendant to booking. Williams was uncooperative at the barracks. He refused to sign his property inventory form and made derogatory comments about the troopers when he made his telephone call from the barracks.

         From the scene, Sergeant Bazzinotti called for assistance from canine troopers to meet him at the barracks. Trooper Eliason arrived with his canine partner " Victor" and searched the vehicle again at the Millbury barracks. Trooper Sullivan was there with Trooper Eliason. Victor was allowed to walk around the vehicle. At the driver's window, Victor stopped and looked into the window of the vehicle. Victor alerted the troopers to the possible presence of drugs by sitting at or near the glove compartment of the vehicle. Victor also touched the glove box with his paw.

         Sergeant Bazzinotti oversaw the booking of Russaw. He directed another trooper to have Russaw empty his pockets into his hat. When Russaw did so, Sergeant Bazzinotti noticed what appeared to be a key that is usually inserted in the key " fob, " but that was missing from the fob to the subject vehicle. There was no testimony on how the key from Russaw's pocket got from his hat to the glove compartment of the vehicle. However, the troopers, at some point, used that key to unlock and open the glove compartment. They recovered a clear plastic bag containing a brown powdery substance from that compartment and field-tested it. That substance was positive for heroin according to the field test.

         Trooper Sullivan asked Ms. Singh where they were driving; she stated that the four were headed to Boston to meet a friend.

         RULINGS OF LAW

         The stop of the defendants' car was a permissible traffic stop; the defendants do not argue otherwise. See Commonwealth v. Sinforoso, 434 Mass. 320, 323, 749 N.E.2d 128 (2001) (validating stop for speeding violation). The defendants dispute the permissibility of the troopers' remaining actions. Specifically, the defendants maintain that (1) there was no lawful basis to arrest Mr. Moore; and (2) the troopers had no basis to impound or search the vehicle. They argue that, for these reasons, the fruits of the search must be suppressed.

         I. The Arrest

         The Commonwealth's proffered basis for arresting Mr. Moore is his operation of the rental car without permission from Hertz, conduct the Commonwealth asserts establishes probable cause to bring charges for use of a motor vehicle without authority in violation of G.L.c. 90, § 24(2)(a).[2] The defendants disagree that Mr. Moore's conduct is criminally actionable and maintain that his arrest was unlawful. Our cases have not yet addressed the criminality of driving a rental car without permission from the lessee of the vehicle under § 24(2)(a). See Commonwealth v. Watts, 74 Mass.App.Ct. 514, 518 n.4, 908 N.E.2d 788 (2009) (" We need not decide whether the fact that [the rental company] no longer authorized the defendant to operate the rental car provided the police with probable cause to arrest him for use of a motor vehicle without authority in violation of G.L.c. 90, § 24(2)(a)"). Contra Commonweal ...


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