Search and Seizure, Exigent Circumstances, Emergency Aid Exception

COMMONWEALTH VS. JOSE L. ARIAS
(MARCH 2019)
[Search and Seizure, Exigent Circumstances, Emergency Aid Exception]

 

Overview

In this case, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court addressed two exceptions to the warrant requirement: (1.) emergency aid exception and (2.) the exigent circumstances exception.

The defendant, Jose L. Arias, filed a motion to suppress evidence seized pursuant to the warrant, on the ground that the warrant was obtained on observations made during an unconstitutional search. While a Superior Court judge allowed the motion, the Appeals Court reversed the motion judge’s order after concluding that the warrantless search was permissible under the emergency aid doctrine.

Background

On the evening of March 4, 2014, the Lawrence police department received a tip from an unnamed 911 caller. The caller stated that she was “coming down the street” when she saw two “Spanish guys” “with a gun…going up to the building” located at “7 Royal Street” in a residential neighborhood in Lawrence. She also said she saw two Hispanic males enter a house, one in a gray jacket and one in a black jacket—one of which was loading a clip into a handgun.

At the time, the Lawrence Police Department was investigating a series of home invasions in the city believed to be the work of a New York-based gang. However, in the course of the proceedings prior to the Supreme Judicial Court appeal, no evidence was presented on how recently or where the home invasions had occurred, or if any home invasion occurred in the immediate vicinity or neighborhood of the particular street.

In response to the 911 call, multiple police officers responded to the dispatch. Officers quickly surrounded the building the caller directed the police. One officer spoke to residents of unit 7A, the first-floor apartment located across the hall from unit 5A. The residents claimed to be scared that fifteen police officers with their guns drawn had surrounded the building.

Shortly after officers surrounded the building, one officer observed a Hispanic male leaving the apartment complex from the left rear door. With his firearm still drawn, the officer shouted for the suspect to show his hands. The suspect appeared “shocked” and “quickly went back inside” the building, “closing the door behind him.” When officers attempted to pursue the fleeing suspect, they found the door he retreated into locked. The door was associated with apartment number 5A.

The officers decided to enter the unit without a warrant. Conducting a “protective sweep” for any injured persons and the Hispanic male seen earlier at the rear of the building, the officers moved through the living room of unit 5A toward the rear of the building. They did not find any people, but they did observe in plain view what appeared to be illegal narcotics, a scale, and a plastic bag lying on the floor. The officers did not seize any of this evidence at that point.

After confirming the absence of any people inside unit 5A, the officers, in addition to several canine unit dogs, searched the basement of the building. There they found and arrested three individuals. After the arrests, the officers obtained a search warrant. Pursuant to the warrant, they searched unit 5A again and seized items from the apartment.

Discussion: Legal Principles

A warrantless government search of a home is considered unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution and Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. However, warrantless searches can be justifiable under special conditions, if the circumstances of the search fall within an established exception to the warrant requirement.

One of these exceptions is the emergency aid exception. The emergency aid doctrine applies when law enforcement officers enter a dwelling to provide or respond to a need for emergency assistance. A warrantless entry and protective sweep must meet two strict requirements:

  • First, that at the time of entry there must be an objectively reasonable basis for the officers to believe that an emergency exists
  • Second, after the entry, the conduct of the officers must have been reasonable under the circumstances (i.e. the search must not exceed the scope of the emergency)

The burden rests with the Commonwealth to establish these requirements. To meet its burden, the Commonwealth first must demonstrate “objectively reasonable grounds” to believe that an emergency existed at the time of entry. In determining whether a warrantless entry is objectively justified, it is evaluated in relation to the scene as it could appear to the officers at the time, not as it may seem to a scholar after the event with the benefit of retrospective analysis.

Entering officers do not need ironclad proof of a likely serious, life-threatening injury in order for a warrantless entry to be reasonable under the circumstances. Neither does a reviewing court require that police have probable cause that a crime has been committed.

In summary, it is sufficient where the totality of circumstances demonstrates objectively reasonable grounds to believe that emergency assistance is needed to prevent imminent physical harm, to provide assistance to one who is injured, or to protect life or, in some circumstances, property. A protective sweep must be limited in scope to its purpose, to preventing imminent harm, protecting life or property, or providing aid to one who is injured.

If after entry officers no longer have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency exists, it is unreasonable for them to keep searching. However, if officers continue to have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency exists after completing a protective sweep, a subsequent sweep that is limited to the scope of the emergency can be justified. As always, evidence observed in plain view may be seized.

Discussion: Initial Search of Unit 5A and Basement

The defendant argued that the officers who entered unit 5A and the basement without a warrant lacked objectively reasonable grounds to believe that an emergency existed. The Commonwealth acknowledged the existence of “an absence of precedence” justifying the officers’ warrantless entry under the emergency aid doctrine.

The Court determined that the totality of the circumstances at the time of the entry of police into unit 5A did not support such an objectively reasonable grounds to believe that an emergency existed. When the officers arrived at the scene in response to the 911 call, they saw and heard no signs of disturbance, and detected no signs of forced entry.

The Court noted that when officers interviewed residents of unit 7A, they learned that the residents too had seen and heard nothing suspicious or out of the ordinary. It reasoned that the fact that the suspect spotted in the rear of the complex was observed at the back of the building did not transform the situation into an emergency. There was no indication that the suspect was injured, in need of emergency assistance, armed, or about to harm others, or that he had harmed others.

The Court concluded that regardless of whether the officers had sincerely held beliefs as to the existence of an armed home invasion or hostage situation, their subjective beliefs at the scene could not justify a search under the emergency aid exception.

Discussion: Probable Cause and Exigent Circumstances Exception

The Superior Court judge concluded that under the exigent circumstances doctrine, the facts confronting the officers did not establish the existence of an exigency, or probable cause of an armed home invasion or hostage situation in progress.

In the absence of a warrant, two conditions must be met in order for a nonconsensual entry to be valid under the exigent circumstances doctrine:

  • First, there must be probable cause
  • Second, there must be exigent circumstances

In other words, when probable cause exists to believe that a crime has occurred, is occurring, or will occur imminently, warrantless entry is justified only if exigent circumstances are also present. The Commonwealth bears the burden of proving these two conditions.

When entry is lawful under the exigent circumstances doctrine, the police, in accordance with the rule of plain view, can take into its possession material having apparent evidential connection to the criminal activity it was in the course of investigating.

Discussion: Exigency

For exigent circumstances to exist, officers must have reasonable grounds to believe that obtaining a warrant would be impracticable under the circumstances. Impracticability arises in the context of the exigent circumstances doctrine when the delay caused by obtaining a warrant would create a significant risk that the suspect may flee, evidence may be destroyed, or the safety of the police or others may be endangered.

The Court concluded that the officers lacked a reasonable basis to believe that they or others were at risk of imminent harm, in accordance with the exigent circumstances doctrine. At the scene, officers encountered no indications of violence or forced entry. Additionally, there was no indication that he, the police, or anyone else was at risk of imminent injury. The Court reasoned that there was nothing indicative of an imminent threat of danger to persons inside building or to the officers. There was also little risk of the suspect’s flight from within, given that officers surrounded the building.

The Court noted that the investigation of a crime, even a serious crime such as an armed home invasion, does not itself establish an exigency. Because officers lacked a reasonable basis to believe that an exigency existed in unit 5A, the warrantless search was impermissible.

Discussion: Probable Cause

Probable cause exists where the facts and circumstances within the knowledge of the police are enough to warrant a prudent person in believing that an individual has committed or was committing an offense. In addition, where an informant’s tip is sufficiently detailed, a reviewing court reasonably may infer that the informant had a direct basis of knowledge.

The Court stated that when assessing the reliability of private individuals who report apparent violations of the law, more weight is accorded to the reliability of those who are identified by name and address. Even if the police are able to recover the telephone number and identity of 911 callers, it proves absolutely nothing unless the anonymous caller was aware of that fact.

The Court also detailed that the reliability of a tip may be adduced from the extent to which an informant provides factual details. It is especially important that the tip describe the accused’s criminal activity in sufficient detail that the court may know that it is relying on something more substantial than a casual rumor.

Discussion: Probable Cause

The Court began by inquiring into the issue of probable cause by considering the 911 call. It noted that the officers at the scene did not corroborate the caller’s tip. The Court concluded that the basis of the 911 caller’s firsthand knowledge was apparent from the initial tip itself. The 911 caller claimed to have seen and heard what could have been criminal activity.

The more difficult question, the Court conceded, was whether the officers had an adequate basis to conclude that the 911 caller’s tip was reliable. Based on the facts of the case, the Court determined that the caller provided details adverse to a determination of probable cause. Knowledge of an informant’s identity and whereabouts are generally not adequate standing alone to confirm the informant’s reliability. The establishment of probable cause required independent corroboration. The Court concluded that the officers discovered no corroborating evidence of criminal conduct.

The Court added that no officer observed any sound or sign of struggle, violence, forced entry, or damaged property. The Superior Court judge also found that Diaz, who had facial hair and left the building dressed in a gray and black sweater, did not match the 911 caller’s “very general descriptions of two Hispanic men” who had entered the building, one of whom wore a gray jacket and the other of whom wore a black jacket, and neither of whom had facial hair.

Judgment:

The Court acknowledged that the case in question presented a difficult question of probable cause, and that officers are at times required to make split-second decisions to avert violence. In the circumstances here, however, given the absence of independent corroborating evidence, the reliability of the 911 caller’s testimony was insufficient to establish probable cause under Article 14.

Order allowing motion to suppress AFFIRMED.

Justice J. Lowy’s Concurring Opinion

Justice J. Lowy wrote a separate concurring opinion for the court.

The judge agreed that the search was not justified under the probable cause and exigent circumstances exception because officers lacked a reasonable basis to believe that an exigency existed in unit 5A.

On the question of “reasonableness”, the judge stated that reasonableness must be evaluated in relation to the scene as it could appear the officers at the time. The Commonwealth must show the basis of knowledge of the source of the information (the basis of knowledge test) and the underlying circumstances demonstrating that the source of the information was credible or the information reliable.

Lowy bases his concurrence on disagreeing with the Court’s opinion that the caller’s veracity had not been established. He cited how police did contact the informant by telephone, and the informant responded by continuing to cooperate and by providing significant additional information. He claims that this reliable informant told police that she had observed two men with a gun enter a building at a specified address, and she claimed to have heard one of the men load a gun. In addition to having reliable information from the caller that a gun was being loaded in public, Lowy argued that the police also knew about an ongoing investigation into home invasions in Lawrence.

Lowry also questioned why the man emerging from the building fled in the presence of police. He stated that is was unusual for a man told by a police officer with a drawn weapon to show his hands and for him to ignore the command and re-enter a residence, locking the door behind him.  

He concluded that the fleeing man, combined with the tip that a gun was being loaded in public and the knowledge of prior home invasions, gave the police probable cause.

IF YOU OR A LOVED ONE HAVE BEEN CHARGED WITH A CRIME, AND YOU NEED AN EXPERIENCED CRIMINAL DEFENSE LAWYER WORKING ON YOUR SIDE TO PROTECT YOUR RIGHTS, PLEASE CONTACT CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY WILLIAM J. BARABINO.

 CALL 781-393-5900 TO LEARN MORE ABOUT YOUR AVAILABLE DEFENSES.

Source: Commonwealth vs. Jose Arias, SJC—12510

Commonwealth v. Jose Arias

 

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