Drunk Driving Case Thrown Out by Massachusetts Appeals Court
Updated: May 22
After being charged with drunk driving, the Defendant, Desmond Jones, sought to exclude ("suppress") any evidence of his intoxication observed by the police officers who pulled him over. His argument was that pulling his car over in the first place was unconstitutional. In Commonwealth v. Jones, No. 20-P-643 (Mass. App. Ct. Jan. 7, 2022), the Massachusetts Appeals Court agreed.
Mr. Jones was pulled over in Brockton after Brockton Police officers noticed that Mr. Jones’s car did not have an inspection sticker on his windshield. The officers thought (mistakenly, but in good faith) that it was illegal to drive a car without an inspection sticker. The officers activated their onboard computer to check the status of Mr. Jones’s vehicle, but before either officer looked at the car’s registration status (in particular, the date of registration), one of the officers approached Mr. Jones’s vehicle and noticed an odor of alcohol coming from Mr. Jones and a partially full container of beer in his car. After Mr. Jones was arrested, the officers discovered that Mr. Jones’s car had been registered just 2 days before he was pulled over.
So, the question here is whether it was reasonable for the Brockton Police to stop Mr. Jones’s car (thereby allowing the officers to notice Mr. Jones’s apparent intoxication) simply because it did not have an inspection sticker without first checking the registration date of the car.
Let’s take a look at the relevant motor vehicle laws. In Massachusetts, a newly purchased, newly registered car must be inspected within seven days of the date the car is registered. In other words, such a car is entitled to a seven-day grace period in which it can be operated without an inspection sticker.
There are also Constitutional principles that apply in this case. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution (preventing unreasonable searches and seizures) requires that the police have “reasonable suspicion” to pull a car over. (Pulling a car over is a “seizure.”) Observation of a traffic violation generally amounts to “reasonable suspicion.” Here, the alleged traffic violation was operating a car without an inspection sticker.
The Massachusetts Appeals Court decided that because the registration date of Mr. Jones’s car was available to the officers via their onboard computer, it was unreasonable for them to overlook that information and “seize” Mr. Jones. (Even a brief seizure can be unreasonable under the Constitution.) Had they looked at that information, they would have seen that the car was within the grace period where it did not need an inspection sticker. Therefore, the officers did not have reasonable suspicion to pull Mr. Jones over.
What does this mean for Mr. Jones’s case? Any information obtained after Mr. Jones was pulled over will be "suppressed," meaning that it will be inadmissible at trial. Mr. Jones’s case will likely be dismissed because the police officers cannot testify about their observations of Mr. Jones’s intoxication, and therefore the drunk driving charges cannot be proven.
Car stops can result in drunk driving charges, drug possession charges, weapons possession charges, and other criminal charges. You may have noticed that the stop in this case did not occur because of any alleged unsafe operation of a car. Very often, expired registration stickers, burned out headlights or tail lights, or even momentarily crossing the fog line on the side of the road can lead to your car being pulled over. If you were pulled over and subsequently arrested or charged with a crime, you may have grounds to suppress certain evidence if the stop of your car was unconstitutional or if the length of your detention on the side of the road was unreasonable. Feel free to give me a call if you have questions!