Challenging evidence seized from your car during an arrest for drunk driving

What happens if you are stopped for OUI in Foxboro after a Patriot’s game or concert and the police find alcohol in the car. How will finding alcohol in the car impact the defense of a drunk driving charge.

When the police find evidence in a car it is not automatically admissible at trial, it can be challenged on the basis that the evidence was illegally obtained and suppressed at a motion hearing. An example of a challenge to a car search is a recent case decided by the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

A similar set of events occurred in the case of Commonwealth v. Juan Torres, which began as a simple traffic stop but ended with a conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm.

Torres, the defendant, was pulled over by an officer when Torres failed to stop at a Stop sign on a narrow road. The officer pulled Torres over to the shoulder of the narrow road, thereby obstructing traffic since there was no break down lane. After running a license check, the officer discovered that the defendant’s license had been suspended. And because no other driver was available to move Torres car out of the travel lanes, the officer requested a tow truck to transport the car to an impound lot.

While waiting for the tow truck to arrive, the officer began an inventory search of Torres’ car and discovered a gun under the driver’s seat. Inventory searches are conducted by police whenever a vehicle is impounded. The purpose of inventory searches is not to investigate a crime or discover evidence, but only to log all of the driver’s possessions in the vehicle so that the police may know if something was removed or stolen while the car was parked at the impound lot. However, if during an inventory search an officer discovers evidence of a crime, that evidence may still be used to convict the driver in court.

In the case of Torres, the town’s written police procedural manual required the officer to complete an administrative form during the inventory search. This form was never completed by the officer in Torres’ case. Instead, once the gun was discovered, the officer notified his supervisor, who subsequently instructed the officer to stay away from the car until a detective arrived to the scene. In the midst of the investigation, no one made sure to complete the required form.

Before trial, Torres conceded that he was lawfully stopped and searched, but argued that evidence of the gun should not have been admitted because the officer failed to comply with the town’s written procedural manual requiring completion of the administrative form. Both the trial judge and the Appeals Court, however, rejected Torres’ argument. Although the Appeals Court found that noncompliance with the town’s written manual is a factor in determining the lawfulness of the search, this noncompliance standing alone did not invalidate an otherwise lawful search. And because Torres had no other defense, the Appeals Court found no reason to overturn the conviction.

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