The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today upheld a superior court judge’s order suppressing drugs that were seized by Watertown police officers who entered an apartment, without a warrant, because it “smelled like drugs.” The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Tuschall.
In June of 2014, the defendant’s neighbor called the police to report there was an odor coming from his apartment that smelled “like drugs.” The neighbor said the smell was causing her to have a headache and was bothering her dog. The neighbor also reported the defendant’s windows were sealed and there was a bright light shining in one of the rooms. The cops didn’t investigate until two days later, and their knock on the defendant’s door went unanswered. They were unable to see inside of the apartment, but there was a strong chemical smell coming from one of the windows. The neighbor told the police the defendant and his girlfriend usually left the apartment together in the morning, but on that day only the defendant had left. The police tried to call the girlfriend on her cell phone and when they were unable to reach her, they entered the apartment with a key provided by the building owner. The police did not find the girlfriend inside, but they did see equipment used to manufacture methamphetamine. A police officer with expertise in methamphetamine production arrived at the scene and entered the apartment to determine whether there was an immediate risk of a chemical explosion. After concluding the scene was safe, the cops obtained a search warrant. They seized the meth production materials and arrested the defendant, who had arrived as the cops were executing the warrant. The defendant was charged with drug offenses.
After he was indicted and his case was pending in Middlesex Superior Court, the defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing it was unconstitutional for the police to have initially entered his apartment without a search warrant. A superior court judge agreed and suppressed the drug evidence. The Commonwealth appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed. The Court began its analysis by pointing out that warrantless searches are presumed to be unreasonable and prohibited by the constitution. One exception to the warrant requirement, which was relied upon by the Commonwealth, is the “emergency aid exception.” If cops reasonable believe immediate entry into a home is necessary to prevent a threatened explosion, fire, or destructive accident, they are permitted to go inside without a warrant. The Court said when the Watertown police officers arrived at the apartment complex, there was not an objectively reasonable basis for them to have concluded the fumes established a danger of an explosion, fire, or destructive accident, or that any of the other residents of the apartment building faced an imminent threat of serious injury or death. Although the neighbor complained of a headache, there were no reports of serious illnesses resulting from the the fumes. Further, the description of the odor (which the neighbor characterized as smelling like drugs and one of the officers testified smelled like nail polish) did not, by itself, suggest the presence of a methamphetamine lab (which is known to carry the inherent risk of explosion). Finally, there was no evidence at the time of the cops’ entry into the apartment that the defendant’s girlfriend was inside and in need of assistance.
Because the officers unlawfully entered the defendant’s apartment, all evidence seized therein was properly suppressed by the superior court judge, and the case will now need to be dismissed.