Whether because of the lower standard applied to motor vehicle stops (often reasonable suspicion instead of probable cause), or whether due to another reason, a great number of arrests begin with a motor vehicle stop.  When the police arrest the driver of a vehicle, one issue that must be addressed immediately is what to do with the car that the defendant had been operating.  There are generally three options: (1) leave the car where it is; (2) allow another person to drive the vehicle away; or (3) tow and impound the vehicle.

It is important to note that if the police tow and impound a vehicle, they will always perform a search of the vehicle, whether they have obtained a search warrant or not.  The police are allowed to do these “inventory searches” of impounded vehicles in order to protect themselves from charges of theft, as well as to ensure officer safety.  Sometimes, these inventory searches turn up evidence of additional crimes, such as contraband or weapons.  Can this evidence, if obtained without a search warrant as is common, be used against the driver or other occupants of the vehicle?

The fruit of warrantless inventory searches performed on impounded vehicles is generally admissible at trial if the search is done routinely and pursuant to a written policy, which is probably the case in every police department in Massachusetts.  But what rules limit the discretion of the police about whether or not to tow and impound the car in the first place?

On March 9, 2017, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts had the opportunity to fine-tune the law regarding that issue, holding that evidence found during a motor vehicle inventory search must be suppressed because the police were not warranted to tow the car under a “high crime area” justification.

The case is Commonwealth v. Crowley-Chester, and it involved police observation of two individuals seated in a car with the engine running and headlights off.  When the police approached the driver’s window, they made observations, including that of a knife, that ultimately lead to the arrest the driver.  The driver then requested that his passenger be allowed to drive the vehicle away, but the police determined that the passenger did not have a valid license, and so they had the vehicle towed and impounded.  A subsequent inventory search of the vehicle turned up evidence that the Commonwealth argued implicated the passenger in criminal activity.

The passenger moved to suppress the evidence discovered during the inventory search, arguing that the police should have left the vehicle where it was.  At the motion hearing, the government argued that impoundment was necessary to protect the motor vehicle from theft or vandalism, because the vehicle was in a high-crime area.  On review, the SJC noted that there was little evidence that the area in which the vehicle was discovered by the police was an area with a high incidence of vehicle-related crimes, and stated that a high-crime area per se is not enough to support a decision to impound a vehicle; rather, the issue is whether there is a high incidence of motor vehicle theft and vandalism in the area.  The vehicle in Crowley-Chester was also parked in a lawful spot on a public way.  Accordingly, the towing and impoundment were improper, and the evidence discovered during the inventory search was suppressed.

Apparently, the government did not make much of an argument that an alternate justification for impoundment applied: protecting the public from dangerous instrumentalities that are in a vehicle.  The SJC noted in passing that the fact that a knife had been found in the car was not enough to support an impoundment for “dangerousness” anyway, especially since the police confiscated the knife.

Not an issue in the case, but important to remember, is that the police can also tow and impound a vehicle (if there is no one present who can legally drive it away) if the vehicle is located on another’s private property, or is parked illegally.

Attorney Kevin D. Quinlan

The Law Offices of Kevin D. Quinlan

2 South Main Street, Suite 201

P.O. Box 248

Uxbridge, MA  01569

(508) 723-6384


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