Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Reverses Appeals Court Decision Authorizing Warrantless Search Under Emergency Aid Doctrine

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday ruled that Lawrence police officers conducted an unconstitutional search by entering an apartment without a warrant.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Arias

In March of 2014, a woman in Lawrence called the cops to report seeing two Spanish men carrying a gun.  The woman never saw the gun, but she heard one of the men load it.  She said the men were wearing a jacket and a coat and one of them had a hat on.  The men then went into an apartment building that contained four individual units.  The caller said she wasn’t really sure what was going on, but there was “always a little movement in that building.”   More than a dozen officers responded and surrounded the building.  One of the cops went to the rear of the building and saw a man walk outside onto a porch.  When he saw the officer, the man quickly returned inside and locked the door behind him.  At that point, the cops decided to forcefully (and without a warrant) enter the building.  They went into a vacant apartment and observed drugs, a scale, and plastic bags (suggesting the presence of a drug distribution scheme).  The cops then searched the basement and found three individuals, including the defendant.  He was indicted and charged with drug-related crimes.  The defendant filed a motion to suppress the drugs and related evidence, arguing the police lacked the constitutional authority to enter the apartment without a search warrant.  A superior court judge agreed and allowed the defendant’s motion to suppress.  The Commonwealth appealed and a divided panel of the appeals court reversed.  The Supreme Judicial Court accepted the defendant’s application for further appellate review and concluded the search was unconstitutional.

The question was whether the cops’ warrantless entry into the apartment building was justifiable under the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement.  The emergency aid exception allows officers to enter a dwelling to provide emergency assistance to someone inside.  There are two requirements to this rule: (1) at the time the police enter, there must be an objectively reasonable belief for the officers to believe an emergency exists; and (2) following the entry, the behavior of the cops must be reasonable (and cannot exceed the scope of the emergency).  In this case the SJC ruled that the police did not have an objectively reasonable belief that an emergency existed prior to their entry.  While the Commonwealth does not need “ironclad proof of a likely serious, life-threatening injury,” or even probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, it must prove there were objectively reasonable grounds for the cops to believe they needed to provide emergency assistance to prevent imminent physical harm, to help someone who was injured, or to protect life (or property, in some cases).  Here, the cops showed up and did not see or hear any signs of disturbance.  There was no evidence of a forced entry into the building (and the 911 caller said the men had “easily” entered the building, likely with a key).  The neighbors told the police they hadn’t seen or heard anything suspicious.  Finally, the man who exited the rear of the building before quickly returning inside (and locking the door behind him) did not appear to be injured, armed, or otherwise dangerous.  Accordingly, the police were not justified in forcing their way into the apartment building and all evidence seized therein will be suppressed at the defendant’s trial (which may require the Commonwealth to dismiss the case).