Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Limits Exigency Exception Doctrine

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday limited the Commonwealth’s ability to justify a warrantless search based on the exigency exception.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Alexis.

A violent home invasion allegedly occurred in Lynn in June of 2016.  The victim, who lived in the apartment that was invaded, reported he was leaving for work when three men forced their way into his apartment.  According to the victim, one of the assailants, later identified as the defendant, used a handgun to hit him in the face before using duct tape to restrain the victim in his bedroom.  After the men stole the victim’s wallet and jewelry, the defendant hit the victim’s six-month-old baby in the face with the gun.  The victim knew the defendant, as they had attended high school together.  Several hours after the attack, the victim reported to the Lynn Police Department and reviewed hundreds of mug shots before identifying the defendant with 100% certainty.  The cops completed an application for an arrest warrant for the defendant, but did not request that it be issued immediately (there was a process in place whereby a magistrate was available after business hours to approve such a warrant).  Instead, the warrant application was placed in a pile of documents to be transported to court the following day and presented to the clerk’s office during regular business hours.  The next morning, before court opened, a Lynn sergeant learned about the case and the identification of the defendant by the victim.  The sergeant knew where the defendant lived and decided to visit his house with four other officers to arrest him, despite not yet having an arrest warrant.  The five cops traveled to the defendant’s home and set up a perimeter around the house.  As the sergeant walked toward the front door, the defendant spotted him and ran toward the back of the house before attempting to climb through a window.  The officers forced their way into the house through the front door, confronted the defendant, and handcuffed him.  The officers then conducted a protective sweep of the house and saw what appeared to be jewelry stolen from the victim in the defendant’s room.  Once the house was secured, the cops then applied for a warrant to search the defendant’s house, which was authorized by a Lynn District Court clerk magistrate.  During the subsequent execution of the warrant, additional incriminating evidence was seized by the police.  The defendant was charged in Essex Superior Court with multiple crimes, including home invasion.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence collected during the cops’ warrantless entry into his home.  The Commonwealth argued the officers had properly entered the house pursuant to the exigency exception to the warrant requirement.  A superior court judge allowed the defendant’s motion to suppress and he appealed.  The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.

The exigency exception generally allows police officers to enter private areas without a warrant if: there is a concern evidence might be destroyed; a failure to enter the private area immediately might endanger the safety of the police or a third party; or the police are in active pursuit of someone who has committed a violent crime.  In this case, when the police approached the defendant’s home and he attempted to flee, it would seem that the police would be justified in entering his home and taking him into custody.  However, this case reiterated the rule in Massachusetts that when police conduct creates the exigency, the cops can not use the exigency exception to seize evidence without a warrant.  Here, the sergeant and his team of officers created the exigency by not obtaining an arrest warrant prior to traveling to the defendant’s home.  The Court said there was no justification for the police to fail to obtain a warrant prior to going to the defendant’s home, and it was reasonably foreseeable that the defendant would attempt to flee if five cops showed up at his house.  Therefore, when the police created the exigency, it could not benefit by employing the exigency exception to the warrant requirement.  The Massachusetts rule differs from federal law.  The United States Supreme Court has ruled that if an exigency is caused by lawful police conduct, which does not violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure, the prosecution can rely on the exigency exception to admit otherwise inadmissible evidence.  This case is an example of Massachusetts providing greater legal protection to its citizens than the federal government.

Even without the evidence seized at the defendant’s home, the Commonwealth will be able to prosecute him with the testimony of the victim.  The case will be returned to Essex Superior Court for continued prosecution.