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Date: 08-16-2021

Case Style:

United States of America v. PABLO L. RIVERA

Case Number: 20-1340

Judge: David J. Barron

Court: United States Court of Appeals For the First Circuit

Plaintiff's Attorney: Donald C. Lockhart, Assistant United States Attorney, with
whom Andrew E. Lelling, United States Attorney, was on brief.

Defendant's Attorney:

Boston, MA - Criminal defense Lawyer Directory


Boston, MA - Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant with possessing a firearm and ammunition as a convicted felon; possessing heroin with intent to distribute and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking charges.

The defendant is Pablo Rivera, and the vehicle that he
was driving was pulled over by MSP Trooper Vladimir Louissaint on
Route 84 in Sturbridge, Massachusetts on February 8, 2019. Trooper
Louissaint claimed to have pulled Rivera over for driving in the
left lane even though other lanes were available for travel. See
Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 89, § 4B ("Upon all ways the driver of a
vehicle shall drive in the lane nearest the right side of the way
when such lane is available for travel, except when overtaking
another vehicle or when preparing for a left turn.").
After making the stop, Trooper Louissaint discovered
Rivera was driving without a valid license. Rivera was the only
occupant of the vehicle and could not legally drive it.
Trooper Louissaint ordered the vehicle towed pursuant to
an MSP policy ("the MSP impoundment policy") that authorizes a
trooper to have a vehicle removed from the side of a highway if
there is no licensed occupant. The trooper told Rivera that he
was not under arrest and that, as a result, he could ride with the
tow truck driver to the impound lot.
Before the tow truck driver arrived, Trooper Louissaint
informed Rivera that he needed to inventory the vehicle prior to
having it towed. Trooper Louissaint then began to conduct an
inventory search of the vehicle pursuant to a second MSP policy
("the MSP inventory search policy"). That policy required an
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inventory search of any vehicle towed pursuant to the MSP
impoundment policy.
While conducting the search, the trooper discovered a
brown, rock-like substance -- which was later found to be heroin
-- and drug paraphernalia in a backpack in the trunk of the vehicle
Rivera had been driving. He asked Rivera what the substance was,
and Rivera told him that it was salt. Trooper Louissaint then
placed Rivera under arrest, drove him back to the state police
barracks, further inventoried the backpack, and discovered a
loaded firearm.
Rivera was charged in a three-count indictment in the
District of Massachusetts with possessing a firearm and ammunition
as a convicted felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1);
possessing heroin with intent to distribute in violation of 21
U.S.C. § 841(a)(1); and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a
drug trafficking crime in violation of 18 U.S.C.
§ 924(c)(1)(A)(i). Rivera then moved to suppress the evidence
discovered pursuant to the inventory search of his vehicle on the
ground that this warrantless search violated the Fourth Amendment.
He further contended that his roadside statement that the
discovered substance was "salt" and the search of the backpack at
the barracks (during which the police discovered the gun) were
fruits of that initial illegal search and must be suppressed as
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The government contended that the inventory search fell
within the community caretaking function, which "is one of the
various exceptions to the Fourth Amendment's requirement that law
enforcement officers have probable cause and obtain a warrant
before effecting a search or seizing property." Boudreau, 901
F.3d at 71. Under that exception, law enforcement officers, in
"their role as 'community caretakers,'" may "remove vehicles that
impede traffic or threaten public safety and convenience" without
obtaining a warrant. Id. at 72 (quoting United States v. Coccia,
446 F.3d 233, 238 (1st Cir. 2006)); see also Colorado v. Bertine,
479 U.S. 367, 371 (1987) ("[I]nventory searches are now a welldefined exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth
Amendment.").1 The District Court rejected that contention,
however, because it concluded that, as Rivera was permitted to
ride to the impound lot with the tow truck driver, there was no
non-investigatory reason to conduct the inventory search in this
case. United States v. Rivera, No. 19-cr-40007-TSH, 2020 WL
525676, at *2 (D. Mass. Feb. 3, 2020). The government moved for
reconsideration, which the District Court summarily denied on
February 19, 2020. The government then timely filed this appeal
on March 19, 2020. See United States v. Ibarra, 502 U.S. 1, 2
(1991) (per curiam). We have jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. § 3731.
1 Rivera does not object to the trooper's decision to have
his car towed.
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On review of a district court's order granting a motion
to suppress, we apply a "mixed standard," reviewing "findings of
fact and credibility determinations . . . for clear error
and . . . conclusions of law de novo." United States v. Dubose,
579 F.3d 117, 120 (1st Cir. 2009) (quoting United States v.
Andrade, 551 F.3d 103, 109 (1st Cir. 2008)). We view the facts in
the light most favorable to the district court's ruling, but only
to the extent they are not clearly erroneous. Id.
The MSP inventory search policy has three stated aims:
(1) to protect "[t]he vehicle and its contents"; (2) to protect
"[t]he Department and tow company against false claims of lost,
stolen, or vandalized property"; and (3) to protect "[t]he
member(s) [of the MSP force] and the public from dangerous items
that might be in the vehicle." It is clear that an inventory
search carried out to serve those purposes could be compliant with
the Fourth Amendment (even though done warrantlessly and without
probable cause), see South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 369
(1976), and the District Court did not suggest otherwise. Instead,
it held that the search of Rivera's car did not serve any of those
purposes, as "[p]olice safety was not compromised because [Rivera]
was seated on a guard rail awaiting the tow truck" and there was
no risk to Rivera's property because Rivera planned to ride with
the tow truck driver to the tow yard. Rivera, 2020 WL 525676, at
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*2. For that reason, the District Court held that the search could
not be justified as an exercise of the community caretaking
function and so violated the Fourth Amendment. Id.
We are not persuaded. Even if Rivera himself posed no
danger to the trooper, the items in the vehicle might have. See
Bertine, 479 U.S. at 373 & n.5 (explaining that police may conduct
an inventory search out of a concern regarding "dangerous
instrumentalities" and to "check for any dangerous items" in the
vehicle such as "explosives" (quotation marks and alterations
omitted)). And, even though Rivera would have been riding in the
tow truck, given the late hour and the fact that Rivera could not
legally operate his vehicle, there was a risk that the vehicle
would not be recovered promptly. Accordingly, there still remained
the concern about "false claims of theft." Id. at 373. Thus, the
District Court erred in granting Rivera's motion to suppress on
the ground that the inventory search that Trooper Louissaint
conducted did not serve any of the purposes for which such searches
are permitted under the Fourth Amendment for the simple reason
that the search at issue here did serve those purposes.
Rivera separately contends that we may affirm the
District Court's grant of his motion to suppress on the alternative
ground, not relied upon by the District Court, that the initial
traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment because Trooper
Louissaint lacked reasonable suspicion to pull over the vehicle
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Rivera was driving. But, Rivera does not dispute that Trooper
Louissaint testified that he stopped Rivera after Rivera had driven
in the left lane for approximately half a mile, even though the
center and right lanes were available for travel and even though
only a few other cars were on the road, in the distance. Nor does
Rivera dispute that Massachusetts law provides that "the driver of
a vehicle shall drive in the lane nearest the right side of the
way when such lane is available for travel, except when overtaking
another vehicle or when preparing for a left turn." Mass. Gen.
Laws ch. 89, § 4B; see also Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54,
61 (2014). Thus, this aspect of Rivera's attempt to defend the
District Court's granting of his motion to suppress is without
Moreover, in light of our ruling on this score, there is
no merit to Rivera's additional argument that we may affirm the
District Court's grant of his motion to suppress on the ground --
also not relied upon by the District Court -- that the inventory
search was in fact motivated solely by an investigatory purpose.
It is true that an inventory search may be challenged on the ground
that it was undertaken pretextually. See United States v. Del
Rosario, 968 F.3d 123, 128-29 (1st Cir. 2020). But, Rivera
expressly premises his pretext claim here on the fact that Trooper
Louissaint failed to follow the letter of the MSP inventory search
policy after having made the vehicle stop itself without having
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any reason to suspect that there had been a traffic violation.
Thus, our conclusion that the record shows that the trooper did
have such reasonable suspicion to make the stop defeats this
alternative argument for sustaining the District Court's ruling as

Outcome: For the foregoing reasons, we reverse

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