Supreme Judicial Court (May 20, 2011)

During a routine traffic stop, a police officer who has reason to believe that a nonresident driver is operating in violation of the enumerated factors laid out in G.L. c. 90, §3 ½ , may request a copy of the operator's liability policy or insurance certificate. An operator's failure to produce the documents may result in the issuance of a citation or summons, but it is not an arrestable offense under G.L. c. 90, and does not provide probable cause to arrest.

A trooper stopped the defendant for speeding and placed him under arrest for operating a motor vehicle without a license in violation of G.L. c. 90, § 10. During the subsequent inventory search of his motor vehicle, police recovered drugs, cash, and other items. As a result, the defendant was indicted on several drug charges. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence, contending that under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 14 the evidence was the fruit of an unlawful arrest because the defendant possessed a valid Canadian driver's license at the time of the stop and did not need a Massachusetts driver's license. After an evidentiary hearing, a Superior Court judge agreed and allowed the motion. A single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court granted the Commonwealth leave to pursue an interlocutory appeal. The Appeals Court reversed the order of suppression. The Supreme Judicial Court then granted the defendant's application for further appellate review.

G.L. c. 90, § 10 reads in part:
"The motor vehicle of a nonresident may be operated on the ways of the commonwealth in accordance with section three by its owner or by any nonresident operator without a license from the registrar if the nonresident operator is duly licensed under the laws of the state or country where such vehicle is registered and has such license on his person or in the vehicle in some easily accessible place. Subject to the provisions of section three, a nonresident who holds a license under the laws of the state or country in which he resides may operate any motor vehicle of a type which he is licensed to operate under said license, duly registered in this commonwealth or in any state or country; provided, that he has the license on his person or in the vehicle in some easily accessible place, and that, as finally determined by the registrar, his state or country grants substantially similar privileges to residents of this commonwealth and prescribes and enforces standards of fitness for operations of motor vehicles substantially as high as those prescribed and enforced by this commonwealth."

G.L. c. 90, § 3 ½ lists various scenarios under which a person claiming to be a nonresident for purposes of G.L. c. 90, § 3, shall be deemed to be a resident of the Commonwealth. Section 3 ½ also states that the custodian of the records referred to in the statute "that are not accessible to the general public shall provide, upon request, to the . . . local or state police officer, access to certain information contained therein solely for purposes of enforcing chapters 59, and 90."

An individual may be arrested for operating of a motor vehicle without a proper license under G.L. c. 90, § 21. However, the arrest must be based on probable cause. Commonwealth v. Santaliz, 413 Mass. 238 (1992). Once an officer suspects that a Massachusetts resident is driving while not properly licensed, he must conduct an investigation into the matter or obtain relevant determinative information pursuant to G.L. c. 90, § 3 ½. Probable cause to arrest must be made on information that was "definite and substantial." Commonwealth v. Santaliz, supra.

In this case, once the defendant produced a valid Canadian license, the trooper lacked probable cause to believe that the driver was a Massachusetts resident and there was no basis for his arrest under G.L. c. 90, §21. The order allowing the defendant's motion to suppress was affirmed.