Metro

Police went too far when, searching car, they looked under hood, SJC rules

The SJC ruled that a “typical reasonable person would understand the scope of such consent to be limited to a search of the interior of the vehicle, including the trunk.”
Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File
The SJC ruled that a “typical reasonable person would understand the scope of such consent to be limited to a search of the interior of the vehicle, including the trunk.”

The state’s highest court ruled Monday that when a suspect driving a car gives police permission to search “in the vehicle,” it does not mean the officers can look under the hood and remove the air filter.

In a 4-3 decision in the Hampden County case Commonwealth v. Anthony C. Ortiz, Chief Justice Ralph Gants wrote: “In this case we must decide whether a driver’s consent to allow the police to search for narcotics or firearms ‘in the vehicle’ authorizes a police officer to search under the hood of the vehicle and, as part of that search, to remove the vehicle’s air filter. We hold that it does not.

“A typical reasonable person would understand the scope of such consent to be limited to a search of the interior of the vehicle, including the trunk,” Gants said.

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The court, finding that police had “exceeded” their scope, affirmed a lower court’s order to suppress the evidence.

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Police, during a 2015 traffic stop in Holyoke, allegedly opened the hood of Ortiz’s car, removed the air filter, and found two hidden guns.

An officer had allegedly asked Ortiz if there was “anything in the vehicle that the police should know about, including narcotics or firearms.” Ortiz responded, “No, you can check,” the court said.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Elspeth Cypher wrote for the minority that Ortiz’s consent to the search also applied to the search under the hood. She also pointed out that Ortiz didn’t object when the search moved to the engine compartment.

“In my view, the defendant’s unqualified and unambiguous general consent to search for ‘any narcotics or firearms in the vehicle,’ coupled with the defendant’s failure to object as the search moved from the interior of the vehicle to beneath its hood, would indicate to ‘the typical reasonable person’ that the defendant had authorized the entire search at issue, including the officers’ limited search beneath the hood and under the air filter of the engine,” she wrote.

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She also asserted that if the trunk is searchable, as the majority said, the space under the hood should be searchable.

“I do not see a meaningful difference in this context between a vehicle’s trunk and its engine: both are beyond the passenger compartment and must be opened separately,” she said.

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.