Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Reverses Rape Conviction; Rules Seizure of Date Rape Drug in Tequila Bottle was Unconstitutional

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed a Cape Cod man’s convictions for rape and other sex offenses, ruling the police had unlawfully seized a tequila bottle containing the date rape drug from his home.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Kaeppeler.

The defendant was convicted of rape, drugging for sexual intercourse, and drugging to confine following an incident that occurred in May of 2010.  On the evening in question, the defendant was dancing and drinking with friends at a nightclub in Hyannis.  At the end of the night, the defendant invited five people from the nightclub back to his Barnstable home to continue socializing.  The defendant provided everyone with shots of tequila.  After a few hours, the defendant and two of the people who had accompanied him home from the club (a man, who would later become the victim, and his female friend) went to sleep in the defendant’s home and everyone else left.  After going to sleep, the victim awoke during the night to find the defendant performing oral sex on him without his consent.  The victim pushed the defendant away and went back to sleep.

When their friends returned to pick them up from the defendant’s home the following morning, nobody was able to wake up the victim’s friend.  Shortly thereafter, the victim became ill.  The victim and his friend both went to Cape Cod Hospital where medical staff suspected they were victims of drug overdoses.  After ruling out several other causes, doctors concluded they had ingested a substance that the body converts into gamma-hydroxy butyric acid (GHB), which is known as the date rape drug.  Their conditions deteriorated to the point that they were transported by helicopters to Boston hospitals for treatment.

Staff members at the hospital recommended the Barnstable police conduct a well-being check on the defendant to ensure he was not also suffering from a GHB-related illness.  Police officers went to the defendant’s house and knocked repeatedly on his door until the defendant, who appeared to have just woken up, responded.  The defendant told the cops he was not feeling well but he did not have any drugs in his home.  The officers convinced the defendant to go to the hospital via ambulance to seek treatment.  Before leaving, the defendant told the officers there was a tequila bottle in the kitchen and a second empty tequila bottle in the garage.  After the defendant left in the ambulance, an officer summonsed an evidence collection team to the house to collect the two tequila bottles.  The bottles were tested several months later and one of them was found to contain the drug that is converted into GHB by the body.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the bottles (and the outcomes of the testing), arguing the police had illegally seized them from his home.  A superior court judge denied his motion and the bottles and the test results were admitted into evidence at his trial.  The defendant was convicted and sentenced to serve 18-20 years in state prison.  The defendant appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court reversed.

The SJC began its analysis with the principle that a warrantless search is presumed to be unreasonable.  The Commonwealth argued the search in this case was permissible under the emergency exception to the warrant requirement.  Under the emergency exception, a police officer may search for and seize evidence if: (1) the police reasonably believe an emergency exists; and (2) the police conduct is reasonable under all the circumstances.  The Court agreed that in this case there was an emergency that allowed the police to enter into the defendant’s home without a warrant.  The police had information that people who were drinking at the defendant’s home had become seriously ill and also that the defendant had not appeared at his job that day.  The police were justified in entering the defendant’s home to ensure he was not in need of emergency medical attention.  However, once the defendant had been evaluated and sent to the hospital, the emergency situation was over.  The hospital staff had not asked the police to seize the bottles and the state lab did not analyze them for approximately four months.  Accordingly, the seizure of the bottles was unconstitutional and the superior court judge should have suppressed the evidence.

The Supreme Judicial Court reversed the defendant’s convictions and sent the case back to the superior court for a new trial.  However, without the tequila bottles and the results of their testing, it will become much more difficult for the Commonwealth to prove the defendant’s guilt.