Massachusetts Legal Developments Blog

Can Police Search My Criminal Record Just By Looking at My License Plate?

Your criminal record in Massachusetts is tied to your license plate number. Assuming the vehicle is registered in your name, there is nothing stopping police officers from running a criminal record check based only on your license plate number. Unlike a traffic stop, they do not need probable cause to do this. Since criminal records are public, virtually anyone could do the same. A recent case in Massachusetts shows that police may initiate traffic stops having already decided whether they want to search vehicles. 

Boston Police Fail to Mention Use of Criminal Record Check Before Search

In May of 2024, the official website of the Boston Police announced that they had successfully recovered a large-capacity firearm during a traffic stop in Roxbury. They claimed to have initiated the stop because the defendant "failed to stop at a stop sign" on two separate occasions. They proceeded to pull the defendant over. For whatever reason, the Boston Police found it necessary to mention that the defendant did not stop "immediately" – implying some kind of pursuit took place. However, the same report notes that the defendant complied and pulled over on Washington Street.

The police then claim to have noticed the man "visibly shaking" while handing over his license and registration. It's not clear whether this can be corroborated by bodycam footage – or any evidence other than the officers' testimony. 

The report then goes on to say that the officers made "multiple attempts" to extricate the driver from their vehicle. Again, it's not clear how exactly this happened. Did the officers merely request that the driver exit this vehicle, or did they physically remove him against his will? They then searched the man's body but ostensibly found nothing. Unsatisfied, they proceeded to search the vehicle and recovered a firearm. 

Police say that the Glock 23 handgun is stolen and that it features a 21-round magazine. They also mention that it has been fitted with a laser sight, although this is completely legal in Boston. As a result of this traffic stop, the defendant was charged with numerous firearms offenses and receiving stolen property. 

Did the Police Decide to Search His Vehicle Ahead of Time?

As most people know, police officers in the United States need a valid reason to search a vehicle due to the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Based on this report, it seems that the Boston Police are trying very hard to justify pulling this man over under extremely flimsy circumstances. Most drivers would need to cause an accident to be pulled over for "not coming to a complete stop" at a stop sign.

The Boston Police also seem to imply that the defendant failed to stop "immediately," although he did pull over and comply fully. How long did the defendant wait before pulling over? Was he simply searching for a safe spot to stop? The police do not give any specifics in this regard, and they seem content to vaguely imply that this individual attempted to flee. 

Finally, we have the dubious claim that the man was "shaking" while handing over his license. This observation is the kind of thing that is impossible to confirm or deny. Even if he was shaking, one might argue that interacting with police is an inherently scary experience – even if you've done nothing wrong. 

In the end, it is safe to say that the police had already decided that they wanted to pull this man over and search his vehicle. They inevitably ran his plates before initiating the traffic stop, learned of his criminal record, and made a decision to violate his Fourth Amendment rights. While the Constitution is supposed to protect us from unreasonable searches, the reality is clear: Police can theoretically pull us over and search our vehicles whenever they feel like it. We should also note that although the recording of the interaction will be suppressed, the officers involved may testify "at trial as to what was said during the three transactions or what he observed during them."

Find an Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyer in Boston

If you have been searching for a Boston criminal defense lawyer, consider Edward R. Molari. We have helped numerous defendants fight unlawful searches, seizures, and traffic stops. We have considerable experience with firearms defense, possession defense, and more. Book a consultation today to discuss an appropriate defense strategy.