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Massachusetts Appeals Court Rules that Peabody Cops Correctly Used the “Emergency Aid Exception” to Enter Private Apartment

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed the suppression order of a district court judge, ruling that Peabody police officers were correct in entering an apartment without a warrant to investigate a potential domestic disturbance.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Gordon.

The defendant was charged with firearms and drug offenses following Peabody police officers’ entry into his apartment without a warrant or his consent.  In May of 2012, an unidentified woman called 911 from Paddy Kelly’s bar in Peabody, which is a building that also contains three apartment units.  The caller said there was a disturbance in unit one.  Several police officers responded and knocked at the front door to the building, which was opened by a resident of unit two.  The woman (who was not the 911 caller) told the police she heard an argument in apartment number one between a male and a female and also heard “crashing” sounds as if something was breaking.  Nobody answered the police officers’ knocks at unit one.

Meanwhile, the bartender from Paddy Kelly’s appeared and identified herself as the 911 caller.  She said a woman named Kay had come into the bar and asked for the police to be called.  Kay said she was not okay, her hair was soaking wet, her shirt was stretched out, and she was carrying a dog.  She looked very upset and was speaking in a frantic tone of voice.  The bartender told the police that Kay often stayed in unit one.  The police officers decided to force their way into the apartment.  The apartment building manager appeared and used a master key to allow the police inside.  The police searched the five-room apartment for anyone who might be hurt or in need of assistance but didn’t find anybody.  However, while inside, the police observed contraband in plain view, including ammunition, firearms, and drugs.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the warrantless search of his apartment, arguing that the police lacked justification for entering.  A district court judge agreed with the defendant and allowed the motion to suppress, but on review the Appeals Court reversed.

The Appeals Court reviewed the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement, which states that police officers can enter a home without a warrant if they reasonably believe there could be someone inside who is injured or in imminent danger of physical harm.  Interestingly, the Court then took note of the domestic violence laws in Massachusetts and said police officers can considered whether an act of domestic violence had been committed in determining whether to enter a home without a warrant.  In this case, according to the Court, the police officers had a reasonable belief that Kay had been the victim of domestic violence shortly before their arrival and it was likely that she had returned to unit one.  Accordingly, it was appropriate for the police to enter the apartment in an effort to locate Kay and ensure her safety.

The case will now return to the Peabody District Court for the further prosecution of the defendant.

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