Inventory Search Found unlawful by Massachusetts SJC

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Ruled this past week it was unreasonable for the police to impound a vehicle lawfully parked in a department store lot and conduct an inventory search of the vehicle after the authorized driver of the vehicle was arrested for shoplifting in the case of Commonwealth v. Oliveira. Police officers went to the loss prevention office of a department store in Dartmouth, where defendants had attempted to leave the store without paying for some items. A bag of merchandise was in the car that Defendant Violet had driven, which was registered to Violet’s girlfriend. Violet gave permission to search the car for the bag, and provided the keys to the car. Defendants were then placed under arrest. When told that the car would be inventoried and towed, Violet stated that he wanted his girlfriend to come and pick it up instead. The police did not honor Violet’s request, and conducted an inventory search of the vehicle, which produced a loaded firearm.

During a motion to suppress the firearm, the judge concluded that the seizure of the car was unreasonable. The judge found that Violet’s request that the vehicle not be towed and that its owner be permitted to get it was reasonable. After the arrest of a driver, a vehicle may be seized for a legitimate reason. However, seizure with the purpose of investigation is not a legitimate reason.

Courts look at the totality of the circumstances to see whether the alternative offered by the owner was an alternative the police reasonably should have allowed instead of impoundment. In this case, the car was registered to Violet’s girlfriend, and the police did not question that he was authorized by her to drive it. Violet requested that the police leave the car where it was parked until his girlfriend could retrieve it. Violet was only arrested for shoplifting and it was likely that he would be released on bail after he was booked and could then notify his girlfriend to retrieve the car. Even if Violet was not quickly released on bail, he could have used his phone call to call his girlfriend to pick up the car. There was no evidence of the car being at risk of being stolen or vandalized while left in the parking lot. The car was properly parked in the lot, and did not obstruct other vehicles.

So long as a car reasonably could be left in the place it was parked, it does not need to be seized and towed. The Court was right to find that the car could reasonably have been left in the parking lot, and that there were reasonable alternatives to towing.

To read up on other important Supreme Judicial Court decisions, click here.

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