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Commonwealth v. Nicoleau

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

October 14, 2016

COMMONWEALTH
v.
JAHLIEL M. NICOLEAU.

          Heard: May 16, 2016.

         Complaint received and sworn to in the Dorchester Division of the Boston Municipal Court Department on September 5, 2014.

         A pretrial motion to suppress evidence was heard by Catherine K. Byrne, J.

         An application for leave to prosecute an interlocutory appeal was heard by Fernande R.V. Duffly, J., in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county of Suffolk, and the appeal was reported by her to the Appeals Court.

          Michael A. Lafleur, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

          John M. Corridan for the defendant.

          Present: Agnes, Massing, & Kinder, JJ.

          AGNES, J.

         The question presented in this case is whether it was reasonable for police to seize and inventory the contents of a backpack found in the back seat of a vehicle operated by the defendant, Jahliel M. Nicoleau, upon his arrest. The vehicle was parked in front of his home where he lived with his grandmother, who was present at the scene, and to whom the police gave other personal belongings of the defendant. Based on the reasoning in Commonwealth v. Abdallah, 475 Mass. 47, 52-53 (2016), we conclude that although the police had a right to impound and tow the unregistered, uninsured vehicle that the defendant was operating, there was a practical, available alternative to the seizure of the defendant's backpack --namely, turning it over to the defendant's grandmother -- which would have precluded the police from seizing it and subjecting it to an inventory search. Accordingly, we affirm the order allowing the defendant's motion to suppress a knife that the police found inside the backpack.

         Background.

         On review of "a ruling on a motion to suppress, we accept the judge's subsidiary findings of fact absent clear error 'but conduct an independent review of [her] ultimate findings and conclusions of law.'" Commonwealth v. Scott, 440 Mass. 642, 646 (2004), quoting from Commonwealth v. Jimenez, 438 Mass. 213, 218 (2002). We recite the facts as found by the motion judge, supplemented with uncontested testimony from the hearing on the motion to suppress.

         On September 4, 2014, Officer Brian Tracey and his partner were patrolling in Boston and observed a car, driven by the defendant, with one headlight out. The vehicle's registration and license plates were invalid. The officers followed the car and attempted to stop it, but the defendant continued to drive until he parked the car outside his home, where he lived with his grandmother. Other officers arrived, and the grandmother emerged from the home to speak with the police. The defendant was placed under arrest for failure to stop and for motor vehicle violations. Because the vehicle was unregistered and uninsured, and the defendant was unable to produce a driver's license, the officers arranged to have it impounded.

         Having made the decision to impound the vehicle, but prior to the car being towed, officers searched the vehicle, removing a music player from the backseat and giving it to the grandmother. They handed the defendant's keys to the grandmother as well.[1] The police also removed a backpack from the back seat, but instead of handing it to the grandmother, they opened it and located a knife inside. The defendant was additionally charged with unlawfully carrying a dangerous weapon in violation of G. L. c. 269, § 10(b).

         The defendant moved to suppress the knife, and Officer Tracey testified at the motion hearing. Although Tracey admitted that the officers removed a music player from the car, the inventory search form that was completed indicated that nothing had been removed from the vehicle. The motion judge ruled that the stop, impoundment, and inventory search were lawful. However, she concluded that the inventory search should not have extended to the interior of the backpack, because the grandmother was present and willing to take possession of the defendant's property, and in fact did so in the case of the ...


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