The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed a Framingham District Court judge’s suppression order in a drunk driving case, concluding a police officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the car the defendant was driving. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Puac-Cuc.
On April 29, 2018, the defendant was driving an SUV on a public road in Framingham. A police officer used his cruiser’s computer to check the SUV’s license plate in the RMV database, and learned that the vehicle’s owner was not properly licensed in Massachusetts. The officer pulled over the SUV, even though he did not know whether the owner was driving. The defendant (who, as it turned out, was not the SUV’s owner) was driving the vehicle and he had two passengers. The cop had a conversation with the defendant and determined he had been drinking. The defendant made incriminating statements to the officer and was arrested for operating under the influence of alcohol. Once the case was in court, the defendant filed a motion to suppress (arguing there was no constitutional basis for the officer to stop his vehicle). A Framingham District Court judge allowed the motion and ruled: the cop did not have reasonable suspicion that the defendant was committing a crime at the time of the stop; and, in any event, the stop was pretextual (which means the officer had an ulterior motive to stop the SUV, even if it was allowed by law). The district court judge’s decision was in direct conflict with two Supreme Judicial Court cases and a recent United States Supreme Court case, and the Appeals Court wasted no time in reversing it.
A police officer cannot stop a car unless there is reasonable suspicion for him to believe that an occupant of the car had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime. It is illegal to drive in Massachusetts without a valid license, so it would have been appropriate for the cop to stop the SUV’s owner if he had been driving. The constitutional question is whether it was proper for the cop to stop the SUV, knowing the owner was not licensed but not knowing if the owner was driving. The Supreme Judicial Court has twice ruled a stop is constitutional under those circumstances. The Court said that without any evidence to the contrary, a police officer can reasonably assume that a vehicle is being driven by its registered owner. In this case, the cop did not discover the defendant was not the registered owner until after the stop (at which point the cop identified indicia of alcohol consumption). The United States Supreme Court has agreed with the SJC’s analysis. In a case decided earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that officers can rely on the “commonsense inference” that car’s driver is likely its registered owner. Having concluded that the Framingham District Court judge’s suppression order was in direct conflict with SJC and Supreme Court decisions, the Appeals Court reversed and sent the case back to Framingham District Court, where the defendant can either go to trial or plead out.