MEMORANDUM AND ORDER PURSUANT TO RULE 23.0
Following a stop of the defendant's vehicle, the defendant was charged in the District Court with one count of possession of a class B drug with the intent to distribute, G. L. c. 94C, § 32A (a ), and one count of possession of a class A drug with the intent to distribute, G. L. c. 94C, § 32 (a ). The defendant moved to suppress all evidence obtained following the stop. After the judge in a thoughtful memorandum of decision allowed the motion, the Commonwealth successfully sought leave to appeal. See Mass. R. Crim. P. 15 (a) (2), as amended, 476 Mass. 1501 (2017). Because we conclude that in the absence of any information that the vehicle at issue was legally operable, reasonable suspicion of a civil motor vehicle violation justified the stop, we reverse.
The latter count was originally charged as a trafficking offense but was subsequently amended.
The defendant's motion to suppress challenged the legality of both the stop of his vehicle and the subsequent warrantless search of his person. At the motion hearing, however, he expressly limited his challenge to the legality of the stop.
Discussion. In Massachusetts, a vehicle can fail inspection based on deficiencies in either of two categories: safety defects or emissions violations. See Commonwealth v. Rivas, 77 Mass. App. Ct. 210, 214-215 (2010), citing 540 Code Mass. Regs. § 4.07(3) (2008). Depending on the reason for a vehicle's inspection failure, the vehicle is issued either a red or a black rejection sticker; red signifies a safety defect while black indicates an emissions violation. See Rivas, supra at 215 & n.5. A vehicle that fails inspection based on a safety violation (red sticker) may not be operated until "all safety related equipment defect(s) have been corrected." 540 Code Mass. Regs. § 4.07(3)(b). A vehicle with an emissions-based failure (black sticker), however, may lawfully be operated for sixty days following the failed inspection, regardless of whether the emissions problem is remedied during that time. Id.
The facts found by the judge are not disputed, and we accept them as true. See Commonwealth v. Feyenord, 445 Mass. 72, 73 (2005). While the defendant was driving on Interstate Route 95, a State police trooper on patrol in the area and driving behind the defendant conducted a random registry query of the defendant's vehicle. As a result of that query, the trooper learned that the vehicle had failed its most recent inspection approximately two weeks earlier. He did not, however, learn the reason for the failure or the color of the rejection sticker that had been issued as a result.
For convenience, we sometimes refer to the vehicle at issue as "the defendant's vehicle." Nothing turns on whether the defendant owned the vehicle.
Although the trooper conceded that he could have confirmed the color of the sticker by driving his vehicle up to and beside the defendant's vehicle, he did not do so. Instead, based solely on the information he had received about the failed inspection two weeks earlier, he pulled the vehicle over. It was only after the vehicle was stopped that the trooper ascertained that the rejection sticker was red.
Having stopped the car, the trooper ran the defendant's license, learned that he had an open District Court warrant, and arrested him on the warrant. The defendant was charged with possession of the drugs that the arresting trooper found in the rear seat of his cruiser after transporting the defendant to the State police barracks.
Given these facts, the judge ruled that the trooper did not have the reasonable suspicion required to justify the stop. We disagree.
In analyzing the validity of the stop, "we independently determine the correctness of the judge's application of constitutional principles to the facts...." (citation omitted). Commonwealth v. Buckley, 478 Mass. 861, 864 (2018). Where the police are aware that a vehicle has failed inspection and do not have information ruling out the possibility that the vehicle is being operated unlawfully, they are justified in stopping the vehicle for the purpose of resolving that question. See Rivas, 77 Mass. App. Ct. at 216-217. We are not persuaded that the trooper's failure to pull up next to the moving vehicle to observe the color of the sticker on the windshield requires a different result. Just as "the police may, in the absence of any contrary evidence, reasonably conclude that a vehicle is likely being driven by its registered owner," the police may, in the absence of contrary evidence, reasonably conclude that a vehicle with a failed inspection sticker is being operated impermissibly. Commonwealth v. Deramo, 436 Mass. 40, 43 (2002). See Commonwealth v. Garden, 451 Mass. 43, 46 (2008) (stop predicated on suspension of female registered owner's license proper despite police observation after stop that operator was male). The judge should not have allowed the motion to suppress.
Our conclusion is consistent with that of other panels of this court. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Amoako, 97 Mass. App. Ct. 1108 (2020) (police justified in stopping vehicle based on inspection failure to "discern which color sticker the car bore"); Commonwealth v. Harris, 79 Mass. App. Ct. 1102 (2011) (same).
In reaching our conclusion, we have not overlooked the defendant's policy arguments. We are mindful that the law as we interpret it permits the police to stop many, and perhaps most, vehicles that have failed their most recent inspection. We are also cognizant of the intrusion that even a brief and legitimate traffic stop makes into a driver's privacy and peace of mind, and that the ill effects of traffic stops fall disproportionately on communities of color, see Commonwealth v. Buckley, 478 Mass. at 877 (Budd, J., concurring), although the defendant has not raised any claims of discrimination in his own case.
Against these considerations, however, we balance the public safety concerns furthered by requiring vehicles to meet minimum inspection standards as a prerequisite for operating on public roadways, see Commonwealth v. Rodriguez, 472 Mass. 767, 776 (2015), quoting Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 658 (1979) ("recognizing States’ ‘vital interest’ in vehicle inspection and registration requirements, which ensure that all vehicles are ‘fit for safe operation’ "); the unreasonable risk potential inherent in requiring the police to make visual confirmation of inspection stickers on moving vehicles, cf. Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 500 (1983) ("the investigative methods employed should be the least intrusive means reasonably available to verify or dispel the officer's suspicion in a short period of time" [emphasis added]); the narrow scope of any inquiry following a traffic stop based on a failed inspection sticker, see Buckley, 478 Mass. at 873, and cases cited (scope of inquiry limited by nature of stop); and the availability of remedies, even if imperfect ones, for improper stops, the efficacy of which is buttressed by the increasing emphasis on scrutinizing discriminatory application of the law. See Buckley, supra at 871 (highlighting concerns regarding racial profiling and its impacts on communities of color). We conclude that our result here is proper.
Unrelated aspects of Garden have been superseded by the marijuana decriminalization laws. See Commonwealth v. Long, 482 Mass. 804, 809-812 (2019).
Order allowing motion to suppress reversed.