In a divided opinion, a panel of the Massachusetts Appeals Court today ruled 2-1 that a large amount of cocaine recovered from a car following a motor vehicle stop will be suppressed. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Barreto.
The Boston Police Department received a tip that a green Volvo would be transporting a large amount of drugs on a certain road in Roxbury on June 9, 2014. Four Boston cops set up surveillance in the area where the Volvo was allegedly going to be driving. Late in the afternoon of June 9th, the officers saw a green Volvo, being driven by the defendant, turn at the intersection without signaling. The Volvo parked on the side of the road about 50 feet away, and one of the officers saw the defendant lean toward the floor of the passenger side with both hands. Shortly thereafter, a man walked up to the defendant’s window for about 30 seconds. While the officers saw the pedestrian lean toward the Volvo in a manner consistent with reaching inside, they did not witness an exchange of any objects. The officers also did not see the pedestrian holding any objects or putting anything into his pockets. After the pedestrian walked away, the defendant drove to an adjacent street and the cops pulled him over. The defendant appeared to be nervous, but he produced his driver’s license and registration. One of the four officers on the scene ordered the defendant to get out of his car. As the defendant was exiting, the officers saw a wad of cash (more than $11,000) in a plastic bag in the driver’s door. The defendant was patfrisked and nothing was discovered. The cops then summonsed a drug-sniffing dog to the vehicle, and the dog found a metal box under the passenger’s seat that contained additional cash and a large amount of cocaine. The defendant was charged with trafficking in cocaine. He moved to suppress all of the evidence recovered from his car and a superior court judge denied his motion. The Appeals Court reversed.
The Court’s decision hinged on whether the officers had reasonable suspicion that the defendant had committed a crime when they ordered him to exit the vehicle. An exit order would have been permissible if the cops had reasonable suspicion that the defendant had been involved in a drug deal. However, the Court pointed out that the officers had not observed a hand-to-hand transaction. Further, neither the defendant nor the pedestrian was known to the officers and the area of their meeting was not a high-crime area. The defendant’s conduct could have been consistent with a drug deal, but it also could have been consistent with him asking for directions or dropping off tickets to a sporting event to the pedestrian. The officers’ conclusion that the defendant had been involved in a drug deal was a mere hunch, which is not sufficient to permit the exit order. Because the discovery of the additional evidence flowed from the unconstitutional exit order, everything seized from the car must be suppressed.
As a result of this decision, the Commonwealth will not be able to prosecute the defendant and he will not be subject to the 12-year mandatory minimum prison sentence.