On a summer night in 2009, a Merrimac police officer starting his night shift drove to a convenience store in bordering Amesbury to buy a drink.
On his way back to Merrimac, he noticed the car driving in front of him repeatedly weaving over the double yellow lines. Suspecting the driver was impaired, the officer watched and followed, when suddenly the driver stopped in the middle of the road, turned left into a restaurant lot, and parked near the driveway. The officer followed, blocked the driveway, observed and smelled that the driver was intoxicated, called dispatch, and waited for Amesbury police.
Amesbury police arrived and asked the driver to perform four field sobriety tests, all of which he failed. They arrested the driver, who was eventually convicted last year on his fifth drunken driving offense.
But the conviction could be thrown out if the driver’s lawyer successfully appeals that any evidence gathered after the stop is invalid because the stop itself was made by a Merrimac police officer in Amesbury. Although filed in Appeals Court, the case was taken by the Supreme Judicial Court in April for direct review sometime in the fall.
This is the latest case of its type that the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association is involved in 22 years after a landmark decision was issued by the SJC. In that 1990 ruling, justices affirmed that drunken driving charges issued against Natick driver Paul LeBlanc two years earlier should be dropped because the traffic stop, sobriety tests, and arrest were performed by a Natick police officer who had followed LeBlanc into neighboring Framingham, said Natick Police Chief James G. Hicks, the association’s first vice president.
That decision wasn’t a complete blow to local law enforcement. The justices identified other instances in which the Legislature extended the territorial authority of police officers, further adding that legislators may choose to modify their decision to include stops for traffic violations. Since then, the chiefs’ association has petitioned Beacon Hill to pass legislation that would allow local police to make motor vehicle stops in a bordering community.
Versions of the bill, which is opposed by the State Police union, have been filed every year without success. But with the current legislative session scheduled to end July 31, Hicks said the group is still hopeful this year’s bill will be approved, thanks in part to the involvement of Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr., who offered a rewrite last month after meeting with the county’s chiefs in response to criticisms and concerns that previous proposals were too broad and overreaching.
“This proposal is not about motorists fleeing — it is merely about motorists who stop beyond the jurisdictional border,” Leone wrote to the Legislature. “This is a common-sense proposal that would prevent the dismissal of cases like LeBlanc based merely on the distance it took to effect the otherwise valid stop.”
It is the first time in 22 years that anyone other than the chiefs has worked on the bill, Hicks said.
“We felt as chiefs we were on an island. We felt we were fighting this battle on our own, when in fact it involved others, like those who prosecute the cases in the Commonwealth, and that meant the district attorneys,” Hicks said. “We tried to emphasize this is a public safety issue; this is not a power grab. We’re not looking to give our officers more extensive powers outside of our communities.”
Police officers have arrest authority outside their jurisdictions if they witness a crime in their community and follow the perpetrator into a neighboring city or town, or if they are specially sworn in to a neighboring police department as part of an agreement.
Giving officers powers in bordering communities when they suspect that a crime or violation has been committed would close enforcement loopholes along community lines, Hicks said.
Last year, 70 police officers from Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Revere, Saugus, and Winthrop were specially sworn in to have arrest powers in each other’s communities. Since then, the cooperation has led to two major cocaine busts, said Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, who initiated the agreements after years of frustration over the failure of the Beacon Hill proposal.
Following in his footsteps was Lowell Police Superintendent Kenneth Lavallee, who initiated a similar agreement in January between his department and officers from Chelmsford, Tewksbury, Billerica, Westford, Tyngsborough, and Dracut. Within months, the collaboration led to a prescription pill distribution bust, and the discovery of a marijuana-growing operation in Tyngsborough, said the town’s police chief, William F. Mulligan.
“We can work on investigations that affect our communities in a better way, but it also allows us to act immediately,” he said.
Richard R. Brown, president of the State Police Association of Massachusetts, which represents state troopers, said he has not had a chance to review the changes to the bill, but that the union’s position remains that it duplicates State Police duties.
“We’ve had a consistent position that the local police departments have laws and remedies already in place,” Brown said. “They have the opportunities to draft memorandums of understanding [with bordering departments]. . . . It’s an [operating under the influence] case that dates back over 20 years.
“No one is more on top of protecting citizens from drunk drivers than the State Police Association of Massachusetts,’’ he said. “I don’t think this is the court case, or the language changes that are going to be the remedy. The remedies are already there.”
State Representative Alice Hanlon Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat who filed the bill on behalf of the chiefs’ association, said she became aware of the impact of the LeBlanc decision after Wellesley Police Chief Terrence M. Cunningham told her about an instance in which officers apprehended suspects in several house break-ins after they fled to a neighboring community. Eventually the case got thrown out of court because the officers had no authority to arrest outside their jurisdiction.
Peisch said the new bill language makes it clear that local police want to have the ability to make motor vehicle stops if they suspect a crime or violation along community lines without fear of civil liability if they happen to cross into the next jurisdiction. “We narrowed it to make it clear that this wasn’t being done to give unnecessary powers to the police departments,” Peisch said.
Although the bill, which has been sitting in the Joint Committee on the Judiciary since last year, has 58 cosponsors, Peisch said others still think it’s too broad.
“There still remains a certain amount of concerns in some quarters,” she said. “I’m hopeful we may come up with some compromise language that may allow it to move. If that doesn’t happen in this session, I intend to file it again in the next session.”