Appeals Court (October 8, 2010)

It is not a violation of an individual's Fourth Amendment rights for a certified law enforcement officer to randomly stop a commercial vehicle for the purpose of conducting an administrative safety inspection, and to request that the driver produce his license.

A police officer certified as an inspector by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), was conducting administrative safety inspections pursuant to G.L. c. 90, §19L (a), when he signaled a traveling commercial vehicle to pull over for inspection. The officer approached the driver and requested his license, medical certificate and the registration for the truck. The defendant was unable to provide a valid license and was charged with operating with a suspended license pursuant to G.L. c. 90, §23.

The defendant filed a motion to dismiss the charges arguing that police use of random stops, not based on any reasonable suspicion of a violation of an administrative regulation, to effect warrantless administrative safety inspections of commercial vehicles, violated the Fourth Amendment. The District Court Judge, pursuant to Rule 34 of the Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure reported the following question of law: whether the request to inspect the defendant's motor vehicle operator's license, made pursuant to an administrative safety inspection of the defendant's truck, was a warrantless administrative inspection that violated the defendant's rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Appellate Court found that the question is materially controlled by Commonwealth v. Tart, 408 Mass. 249 (1990), in which the Court upheld the constitutionality of warrantless administrative inspections of commercial fishing vehicles. "The Commonwealth's regulation of the trucking industry presents nearly identical challenges to effective regulatory enforcement of the fishing industry."

The defendant did not dispute that warrantless inspections are necessary to further the regulatory scheme laid out in G.L. c. 90, §19L, he did, however, argue that the statute and regulations at issue here fail to provide a constitutionally adequate substitute for a warrant, in that they do not meaningfully limit the time, place or frequency of inspection.

Under Tart and New York v. Burger, 482 U.S. 691 (1987), whether a statute or regulation provides an adequate substitute for a warrant turns on whether it satisfactorily performs "the two basic functions of a warrant: it must advise the owner of the commercial premises that the search is being made pursuant to the law and has a properly defined scope, and it must limit the discretion of the inspecting officers."

In United States v. Maldonado, 356 F.3d 130 (2004), the Court concluded that the federal regulations satisfied that standard:

"The carefully delineated scope of the [F]ederal regulations suitably cabins the discretion of the enforcing officer. Moreover, the regulations themselves give ample notice to interstate truckers that inspections will be made on a regular basis. To cinch matters, commercial drivers are required by law to be familiar with the applicable regulations."

"The applicable regulations limit who may perform inspections (licensed FMCSA agents), which vehicles may be inspected (commercial vehicles), when they may be inspected (vehicles in operation), and what items may be inspected (e.g., license, registration, drug and alcohol testing records, hazardous materials records). See G.L. c. 90, § 19L; 49 C.F.R. §§ 396.9(a) and (b). The statutory and regulatory scheme informs any operator of interstate or intrastate motor carriers operating on the public ways of the Commonwealth that he or she may be required to produce a license. The scope of the inspection is narrowly defined and its sole purpose is to ensure that operators have proper documentation and their vehicles are being safely operated."

The defendant additionally argues that, even if constitutionally sound, an administrative safety inspection may not be initiated by a random, suspicionless traffic stop. The text of 49 C.F.R. § 396.9(a) specifically provides for inspections by FMCSA-certified officers of "vehicles in operation and intermodal equipment in operation." This language authorizes suspicionless stops of commercial vehicles in operation for the sole purpose of performing administrative inspections.

The Court also rejected the defendant's argument that an administrative inspection in the context of a highly regulated industry, which is conducted pursuant to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, is analogous to the arbitrary selection of vehicles at a sobriety checkpoint, which is prohibited. "In such cases, we are concerned with constitutionally protected privacy concerns of ordinary citizens and not the attenuated expectation of privacy that accompanies pervasive government regulation of an industry."

The Court concluded that the random stop of a commercial vehicle for the purpose of conducting an administrative safety inspection, pursuant to which the defendant was requested to produce his license, was not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The case was remanded to the District Court for further proceedings.