6/9/2017Massachusetts Supreme Court Tosses 45 Minute Traffic Stop
Ruling in Massachusetts confirms principle that a traffic stop must end after the investigation of the alleged infraction is complete.
Police in Massachusetts may not pull over and detain a driver for 45 minutes over minor equipment infractions. That was the decision of the state's highest court last week.
Gabriel Ortiz Cordero, 36, was driving his properly registered Toyota Camry on the Massachusetts Turnpike on February 19, 2015 when Trooper Noah Pack noticed he could issue a ticket to the driver for having a broken tail light and overly dark window tint. Rather than stop the car right away, the trooper followed Cordero for five miles after reading on his in-car terminal that Cordero had previously been charged with assaulting a police officer, and other crimes. As a legal matter, however, all of Cordero's paperwork was in order and he had no outstanding warrants. Cordero committed no traffic violations.
Once he was pulled over, Cordero explained his tail light was hit in a traffic accident. So Trooper Pack asked where he was headed. Cordero told the officer that he was on his way to the Subway up the road, but the trooper noted Cordero had just passed a Subway location (there are two in Lee). Cordero's fast talking and "nervousness" made the trooper suspicious. After calling for backup, the trooper tested the window tint and proceeded to ask to search the vehicle because he thought Cordero was carrying drugs.
"It ain't got to be like that," Cordero responded.
As it was a 15 degree evening and he was forced to stand outside the car, Cordero asked if he could sit in the squad car to warm up. When he was frisked, the officers found $1900 in cash in his pocket. They then asked to search the vehicle, and Cordero twice refused until giving in the third time. Some $20,000 worth of heroin was in the trunk.
The problem for prosecutors was that the police failed to respect the US Supreme Court guidance handed down in Rodriguez, which held that motorists could not be unreasonably delayed while pulled over for a traffic violation (view case).
"When the trooper finished discussing with the defendant the broken lights and the window tint, the facts known to the trooper did not provide reasonable suspicion for a drug investigation," Justice Frank M. Gaziano wrote for the high court. "That the defendant exhibited signs of nervousness and evasiveness in the context of an involuntary police encounter cannot, without more, generate reasonable suspicion. That the defendant had driven past a building housing one chain restaurant en route to another such restaurant is innocuous, not sinister, and the inference to the contrary was unreasonable."
Without having legitimate grounds to suspect Cordero of committing a crime, the trooper should have let Cordero drive away after investigating the traffic infractions, the court ruled. With the drug evidence suppressed, prosecutors will have no case against Cordero.
A copy of the ruling is available in a 100k PDF file at the source link below.