March 15, 2013 /24-7PressRelease/
-- Massachusetts court: Nervousness does not justify police vehicle search
Article provided by Carleen & Caramanica, P.C.
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Many drivers become understandably nervous when stopped by the police, even if they know they have done nothing wrong. Unfortunately for these individuals, the telltale signs of ordinary nervousness -- stammering, shakiness, sweating -- can easily be misinterpreted by police as an indication that a driver has something to hide. In a recent decision that may help put anxious drivers at ease, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals ruled that a driver's nervousness alone is not enough to justify a police search of a vehicle.
Occupants appeared nervous, but not threatening
In August 2012, a three-judge panel at the appellate court reviewed the case of a man who was pulled over after allegedly failing to come to a complete stop at a red light in Boston, and for making a right-hand turn without signaling. When three police officers approached the stopped vehicle and asked for identification, they observed that the driver appeared nervous: According to court documents, the man avoided eye contact and rubbed his thighs repeatedly, and his hands shook as he fumbled with his wallet to retrieve his driver's license.
A passenger in the vehicle also seemed nervous, police said, avoiding eye contact and alternating between shallow and heavy breathing. Despite their evident nervousness, however, the officers acknowledged that both individuals kept their hands within sight at all times, and that neither made any furtive movements.
On the basis of their observations that the driver and passenger seemed nervous, the officers ordered both occupants out of the vehicle. They frisked the driver for contraband, but found nothing. The officers then searched the vehicle and found an unlicensed gun wrapped in a towel in the back seat. The officers arrested both individuals, and the driver was later convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm.
Court says vehicle search was unjustified
Under certain circumstances, police officers conducting a traffic stop are permitted to perform a "protective sweep" of a vehicle to check for weapons that might be hidden within reach of the vehicle's occupants. However, the law requires that such a sweep must be based on the officers' reasonable fear that their own safety or the safety of others may be at risk.
In this case, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals determined that the officers had no reasonable basis for believing that there was a safety risk, and that the search of the vehicle was therefore unreasonable and illegal. As a result, the court ruled that the evidence discovered during the search should not have been admitted at trial. Because the driver could not have been convicted without that evidence, the court reversed his conviction and set aside the verdict.
Get help if charged with a crime
When facing criminal charges in Massachusetts, it is important to seek legal help from an experienced criminal defense lawyer who can explain the legal options available and fight to obtain the best possible resolution to the charges.---
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