The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled a police officer’s “hot pursuit” of a drunken driving suspect into his garage was justified. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Jewett.
The defendant was charged with operating under the influence of alcohol (third offense), reckless operation of a motor vehicle, resisting arrest, and failure to stop for a police officer, as a result of an interaction with a Merrimac police officer on Valentine’s Day of 2010. The officer saw the defendant and a woman get into a pickup truck in a bar parking lot and leave. The defendant was driving. As he pulled out of the parking lot, the defendant crossed over the fog line and committed three marked lanes violations. The officer began pursuing the defendant with his emergency lights and siren activated. The defendant refused to pull over and was weaving back and forth within his lane while driving considerably slower than the marked speed limit. The defendant’s operation was so erratic that he almost struck a parked vehicle. Dispatch confirmed the defendant’s identity and the officer had experienced prior alcohol-related incidents that involved him.
The defendant ultimately drove his truck into the driveway of his home that had an attached garage. The officer got out of his cruiser and tried to get the defendant’s attention by knocking on the truck’s window. The defendant ignored the officer and opened the garage door by way of remote control. Ignoring the officer’s orders to stop, the defendant drove into the garage and parked the truck. The officer wedged the garage door open with an ice pick and entered the garage. The defendant slid into the passenger’s side of the truck and exited through the passenger’s door (the woman had previously gotten out of the truck). The officer attempted to arrest the defendant, who continued to disobey his instructions. The defendant exhibited signs of alcohol intoxication. The officer pepper sprayed the defendant, who temporarily escaped through a door into the basement. The officer followed him through the door and into the backyard, where he was finally able to place the defendant into custody.
The defendant filed a motion to suppress his stop, arguing that the officer had unconstitutionally entered his home without a warrant. A district court judge denied the defendant’s motion by reasoning, among other things, that the officer was in “hot pursuit” of the defendant and therefor was authorized to follow him into the garage. Following his conviction on all charges except reckless operation, the defendant appealed the judge’s denial of his motion to suppress.
A police officer cannot enter a private home without a warrant unless the homeowner consents to the entry or there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and exigent circumstances that justify the entry. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the police officer had probable cause to believe that the defendant had recklessly driven his truck, which is a misdemeanor punishable by two years in jail. Additionally, there is no question that the officer was pursuing the defendant, who was refusing to stop. The defendant argued that even if in hot pursuit, an officer cannot enter a home for a minor offense. Other federal and state courts have agreed with this argument, and the SJC affirmed that more than a minor crime must be involved. However, the Court found that reckless operation, although only a misdemeanor, did not qualify as a minor offense. If the misdemeanor did not carry a jail sentence, it would have been minor and would not have allowed the officer to enter the defendant’s garage without a warrant. The Court said prohibiting a warrantless entry in this type of case would send an “unacceptable message” that defendants who drink and drive can thwart an arrest by beating a police officer to his house.