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Can police use a traffic stop as a shortcut to arrest you?

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/File

The state’s highest court on Thursday will take up a challenge to pretextual stops — the practice of police stopping a person for a motor vehicle violation when they really want to investigate a different suspected crime.

Attorneys for Rogelio Buckley argue that the Supreme Judicial Court should reverse a 1995 SJC decision in the case of Commonwealth v. Santana that authorized pretextual stops. The decision “grants the police carte blanche to stop people traveling on a public way for any reason,” Buckley’s attorneys said in a brief filed with the court.

The decision violates Article 14 of the state constitution’s “core purpose: to protect the people of Massachusetts from arbitrary invasions of their privacy,” the lawyers argued. Article 14 of the state constitution, similar to the Fourth Amendment of the US constitution, guarantees that people can be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.


Prosecutors in Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz’s office argued that the Santana ruling is “a correct statement of the law.”

They also said, “To the extent that the defendant bases his claim on federal authority, his claim also fails. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that an officer’s subjective intent in stopping or seizing a person is irrelevant.”

The prosecutors also disputed arguments that pretextual stops should be eliminated because of concerns that they are used disproportionately against minority drivers. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, in one of several amicus briefs, had argued that the stops have led to “racially-disparate policing.”

Buckley was a passenger in a car that had been parked at an apartment building in Whitman where police suspected drug activity. Two people from the vehicle had been seen going in and out of the house. A detective saw the car driving off with its lights off. He notified an officer to stop the vehicle. The officer saw the car speeding and stopped it.


Buckley was charged with firearms offenses after a gun was allegedly found under his seat. He also faced drug charges after a bag of cocaine was found between his feet while he sat in a police cruiser. Before his trial he unsuccessfully tried to get the evidence suppressed. He was ultimately only convicted on a charge of cocaine possession, according to court briefs.