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Massachusetts Supreme Court Suppresses Evidence Obtained Following Illegally Prolonged Traffic Stop, Orders New Trial

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Judicial Court vacated the convictions of Paulos Tavares, ruling that the trial court failed to suppress evidence that was obtained as the result of an officer extending a vehicle stop without probable cause, which made the evidence the proverbial fruit of the poisonous tree.

John Lima was driving his sister’s Nissan Altima when another vehicle pulled alongside him and fired up to eight gunshots at him. Lima later died at a hospital from three gunshot wounds.

Eyewitness Nicholas Melo told police he heard eight or nine loud bangs before seeing a tannish-gold Chevy Malibu Max with a sloped back round the corner near his house, hit the curb, and speed down the street. Melo stated the car would have scrape marks under the left front and right rear from hitting the curb.

The day after the shooting, Detective Christopher McDermott told Brockton Police Detective Michael Schaaf of the shooting and summarized Melo’s description of the Malibu Max.

Schaaf and State Police Trooper Robert Fries were then assigned warrant apprehension duty.

Later that afternoon, Schaaf observed a grayish-green Chevy Malibu driving in the opposite direction with three occupants. Schaaf believed the passenger in the back seat to be Jose Correia, an individual with an outstanding arrest warrant.

Schaaf and Fries reversed their direction and stopped the Malibu. As Schaaf approached the vehicle, he realized the rear passenger was not Correia but recognized him as Eddie Ortega.

Schaaf asked the driver, Christopher Hanson, for his driver’s license. While Hanson produced his license, he told Schaaf that Tavares—the front seat passenger—had rented the car. But Tavares stated that his girlfriend, Deolinda Andrade, had rented the Malibu.

Schaaf then asked to see the rental agreement. Since none of the occupants were listed on the agreement, Schaaf made the men exit the vehicle. After the men left on foot, Schaaf suspected the vehicle might have been used in the previous night’s shooting.

He contacted McDermott, who then ordered the vehicle towed to the police station. McDermott then contacted the rental agency and told them Hanson had been driving the vehicle.

The rental agency immediately terminated the rental agreement, so McDermott did not return the car to Andrade. Instead, he had Melo come to the police station. When Melos arrived, he immediately identified it as the Malibu he had seen. And the car had fresh scrape marks on its undercarriage consistent with hitting the curb.

After receiving permission from the rental company, the car was searched. Among other things recovered were three fingerprints identified as belonging to Tavares. Based on statements Tavares made to others implicating himself as the murderer, he was arrested.

Tavares, claiming illegal seizure during Schaaf’s stop of the Malibu, moved to suppress evidence of: (1) Melo’s identification of the vehicle, (2) the scrape-mark damage to the vehicle, and (3) Tavares’ fingerprints in the vehicle. The trial court denied the motion, and Tavares was convicted of three charges, including first-degree murder. He appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court.

The Court observed that under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights a person has the right to be free from all unreasonable searches and seizures. A motor vehicle stop is a seizure of all individuals detained in the stop. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996). The police may stop a motor vehicle to “make a threshold inquiry where suspicious conduct gives the officer reason to suspect that a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.” Commonwealth v. Silva, 318 N.E.2d 895 (Mass. 1974). To be a valid stop, it must be “based on specific and articulable facts and the specific reasonable inferences which follow from such facts in light of the officer’s experience.” Id.

When deciding the constitutionality of the stop, courts must determine whether the initiation of the investigation was permissible under the circumstances and whether the scope of the search was justified by the circumstances. Id.

An investigatory stop is permissible when an officer believes an occupant of the vehicle has a warrant for his arrest. Commonwealth v. Owens, 609 N.E.2d 1208 (Mass. 1993). But a valid investigatory stop “cannot last longer than reasonably necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop.” Commonwealth v. Amado, 48 N.E.3d 414 (Mass. 2016). The scope of the stop may be extended beyond its initial purpose only if the officer is confronted with facts giving rise to a reasonable suspicion that “further criminal conduct is afoot.” Commonwealth v. Cordero, 74 N.E.3d 1282 (Mass. 2017).

If there is no evidence of further criminal activity, the officer may not prolong the stop or expand the inquiry. Commonwealth v. Buckley, 90 N.E.3d 767 (Mass. 2018). Under what has become known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine, the exclusionary rule bars the use of evidence derived from an unconstitutional search or seizure. Commonwealth v. Fredericq, 121 N.E.3d 166 (Mass. 2019).

But the failure to suppress unconstitutionally seized evidence is a “harmless error” if it can be shown beyond a reasonable doubt that the evidence had no effect on the verdict. Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967).

The Massachusetts Supreme Court concluded that Schaaf made a valid investigatory stop because he believed a passenger named Correia had an outstanding arrest warrant. However, once Schaaf realized the passenger was not Correia, the stop should have ended. Instead, Schaaf unlawfully extended the stop and seizure by asking Hanson for his driver’s license and by asking to see the rental agreement.

The subsequent impounding of the vehicle and search of it were therefore illegal, and the recovered evidence constitutes fruit of the poisonous tree. Since it was not shown beyond a reasonable doubt that the unlawfully seized evidence had no effect on the verdict, the Court determined the failure to suppress the evidence was not a harmless error.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the denial of the motion to suppress, vacated Tavares’ convictions, and remanded for a new trial consistent with the Court’s opinion. See: Commonwealth v. Tavares, 126 N.E.3d 981 (Mass. 2019). 

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