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Commonwealth v. Cordero

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Berkshire

June 1, 2017


          Heard: February 14, 2017.

         Indictments found and returned in the Superior Court Department on May 11, 2015.

         A pretrial motion to suppress evidence was heard by John A. Agostini, J.

         An application for leave to prosecute an interlocutory appeal was allowed by Duffly, J., in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county of Suffolk, and the appeal was reported by her to the Appeals Court. The Supreme Judicial Court granted an application for direct appellate review.

          Merritt Schnipper for the defendant.

          Joseph G.A. Coliflores, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Hines, Gaziano, Lowy, & Budd, JJ.

          GAZIANO, J.

         We address in this case the authority of a police officer to prolong a routine traffic stop in order to investigate suspected, unrelated criminal activity. The defendant argues that State police troopers and local police officers unreasonably detained him beyond the time required to accomplish the purposes of a traffic stop, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and art. 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, and thus that evidence seized from the trunk of his vehicle must be suppressed. The Commonwealth contends, in contrast, that an officer is not required to ignore incriminating facts that arise during the traffic stop, and that the facts gave rise to a reasonable suspicion to believe that the defendant was engaged in criminal activity. After a Superior Court judge denied the defendant's motion to suppress, a single justice of this court allowed the defendant's motion for interlocutory review by the Appeals Court, and we allowed the defendant's application for direct appellate review. We conclude that once a police officer has completed the investigation of a defendant's civil traffic violations, and the facts do not give rise to reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, the officer is required to permit the defendant to drive away. Therefore, we reverse the order denying the defendant's motion to suppress.[1]

         1. Facts.

         We present the facts as found by the motion judge, supplemented by uncontroverted testimony at the motion hearing. Commonwealth v. Isaiah I., 448 Mass. 334, 337 (2007), S.C., 450 Mass. 818 (2008). On the evening of February 19, 2015, at approximately 6:50 £.M., as State police Trooper Noah Pack left the Massachusetts Turnpike in Lee, he observed a Toyota Camry being driven ahead of him with broken tail and brake lights. He also noticed that the vehicle's windows were illegally tinted. Pack did not immediately stop the vehicle. Rather, he followed it while driving along Route 20, through Lee and Lenox, for approximately five miles.

         While he followed the vehicle, Pack used his onboard computer to determine that the vehicle was owned by and registered to the defendant. He also learned that the defendant's driver's license was current and valid and that the vehicle was properly registered, inspected, and insured. Further, he obtained a photograph and other biographical information of the defendant, and learned that there were no warrants for the defendant's arrest and that the defendant had no pending criminal charges. Pack also discovered that the defendant lived in Holyoke, [2] had been convicted of charges of firearms violations, drug offenses, and assault and battery on a police officer, and had been incarcerated for the drug-related convictions.

         Pack stopped the vehicle, approached the driver's side, and asked the defendant to roll down the window. The trooper observed that the driver appeared to be the person in the Registry of Motor Vehicles photograph and that another man was seated in the passenger seat. Pack asked the defendant for his driver's license and registration.

         While the defendant looked for these items, the trooper noticed that he seemed to be "extremely nervous, " not making eye contact, stuttering when he answered questions, and offering information unrelated to the stop.[3] Pack asked the defendant "what brought him out this way" and "where he was coming from." The defendant answered that he was headed to a chain restaurant "up the road." Pack did not believe this statement because, while he had been following the defendant, they had driven past one such restaurant in Lee, and because the defendant had not specified the location of the restaurant where he was headed. When asked where he was coming from, the defendant said that he had been at his cousin's house "just behind him." Given that Pack had been following the defendant for more than five miles, he also doubted this explanation.

         The defendant produced his driver's license but could not locate the vehicle's registration. The trooper asked the passenger for identification, and returned to his cruiser to run a records check on that information. Once inside the cruiser, Pack "called for assistance" and waited in ...

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