The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed a superior court judge’s determination that Lawrence cops acted unconstitutionally by forcing their way into an apartment without a warrant to investigate the report of a man with a gun. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Arias.
On March 5, 2014, a Lawrence woman called 911 and reported seeing two Spanish men “with a gun.” While the woman apparently never saw the gun, she told the dispatcher she heard one of the men load the gun (when she said sounded like a semi-automatic firearm) and then saw them both enter a particular building that contained four apartments. Lawrence cops responded and secured the perimeter of the building. One of the officers went to the back of the building and saw a Hispanic man, later identified as the defendant, come out of a back door onto a porch. The officer identified himself and ordered the defendant to display his hands. Instead, the defendant quickly went back inside the building and locked the door behind him. Meanwhile, a second officer was speaking to residents of one of the building’s apartments who appeared “very afraid” and, according to the officer, were not being helpful in providing information about the residents of the other apartments. An officer who had responded to the apartment building called back the woman who had originally called 911. She said she lived nearby and was aware of recent armed robberies in the area. At that point, the cops forcibly entered one of the apartments and found drugs, a scale, and thousands of plastic bags on the floor (the inference being that someone was packaging the drugs into the plastic bags for resale). The defendant and two other men were found hiding in a basement storage area. The defendant was charged with violating the Massachusetts drug laws, but not with possessing a gun.
The defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing there was no constitutional authority for the cops to have entered the apartment without a search warrant. A superior court judge agreed and the Appeals Court reversed in a 3-2 split opinion. The Appeals Court reasoned the entry was justified under the emergency aid doctrine. Entry by the police into a home absent a warrant is justified in order to respond to an immediate need to protect life or property. There must be objectively reasonable grounds to believe an emergency exists, and the cops must limit their search to victims or suspects. In other words, the entry may not be used to investigate a potential crime. The cops do not need probable cause to enter, because the entry does not involve any investigatory purpose. In this case, a majority of the Appeals Court concluded the emergency aid exception had been satisfied by: the caller’s report that she heard a semi-automatic gun being loaded; the caller’s knowledge of recent armed robberies in the area; and the defendant’s reaction to the officer in immediately retreating into the building and locking the door. The Court also pointed out there was no evidence the cops had used their entry in order to investigate criminal conduct.
Two justices dissented. The dissent pointed out there was no evidence of cries for help from the apartment building, no evidence of property damage or forced entry, no information from other occupants of the building expressing concern, and no commotion from the building. While the defendant vaguely matched the description provided by the 911 caller, his clothing was not consistent. Accordingly, argued the dissent, the Commonwealth had not established the cops’ conduct was protected by the emergency aid doctrine, and the superior court judge’s allowance of the defendant’s motion to suppress should have been upheld.