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Warrantless Entry and the Emergency Aid Doctrine in Massachusetts

Think the 4th amendment has you protected against all “searches and seizures?” Think again: there have always been exceptions to that rule, where police have been found in the right even though they conducted a search that might seem “unreasonable” in hindsight. And if you are a citizen of the great state of Massachusetts, a new exception that makes it easier for police to enter homes without warrants in some situations has been added to the law. It all started with one phone call from a bar in 2012.

The Call That Changed Massachusetts’ Law

On May 9th, 2012, a 911 call was placed from a Peabody apartment. The address is a mixed residential and commercial zone, with a bar on the ground floor where the police call was made and a number of apartments where the action would later heat up on the upper floors.

When the police arrived and knocked on the door of the apartment area, one resident answered, and told police that she had heard noises like things were “breaking” coming from Apartment 1. After the police knocked on the door of unit one and got no response, they proceeded to the bar area of Paddy’s Pub, where a female bartender told the officers she had place the 911 call.

She described a women coming into the bar frantically and asking that 911 be called, and said the woman had responded with a “no” when asked if she was OK. The bartender recognized the woman as a regular visitor to apartment number 1 of the residential area, and said she had a frantic tone.

After hearing this disturbing description, the police returned to apartment 1 and knocked again. After receiving no response once again, they decided to enter the room without a warrant, and called on the fire department to assist them in breaking down the door. Even though they didn’t have a warrant, an appeals court would later find that the officer’s action was legal.

“[W]hen the police have reliable information that a particular individual has been the victim of domestic violence, has requested police assistance, has exhibited signs of distress, may be inside an apartment or home, and despite a prompt response to the request for assistance and an effort to knock and announce their presence, the police receive no response, the conditions exist for a warrantless entry under the emergency aid exception,” Judge Peter W. Agnes Jr. wrote for the court.

Warrantless Entry and the Emergency Aid Doctrine in Massachusetts

Almost everyone would agree that, if presented with an emergency situation where they can be of help, the police should have wider rights to enter domiciles without warrants and perform other actions. But observers of the case “Commonwealth v. Gordon,” which deals with all of the drama surrounding the phone call that night and some evidence that was recovered and used to file drug charges against apartment 1’s occupant, are curious of where exactly the lines should be drawn.

The defense in “Commonwealth v. Gordon” argued that since the officers who entered apartment 1 didn’t have a warrant, the evidence they recovered could not be used. Furthermore, the defense noted that there was no real cause for an emergency entry into apartment 1 that night, because the distraught women who had asked for the 911 call in Paddy’s was not in any physical danger when the entry was made. But the appeals court found the police’s entry justified.

From the court’s perspective, the officers had a perfectly good reason to be concerned about what might be happening behind apartment 1’s door. Furthermore, recent anti-domestic violence legislation passed in 2014 was held up by the court as expanding the role of the police in preventing domestic violence, and the police actions of emergency entry were found to be in line with the law’s intent to stop domestic incidents. Even though the officers had no warrant for entry, the court found it prudent that they applied the emergency entry doctrine as they did.

Emergency Entry Expanded Too Much?

Critics of the court’s ruling point to the fourth amendment and other protections against warrantless search, and say the court’s expansion of the emergency entry doctrine in this case does serious damage to some of the key rights of citizens. This reading of the law stresses the fact that with wider protections and broader exceptions, emergency entry will start to become the norm rather than an exception to the rule, and that warrantless searches of areas accessed through emergency entry will become the norm.

Whether or not this change in Massachusetts law represents a loss of citizen rights, and whether it will expand and signal a new trend in emergency entry being a catch-all excuse for warrantless search in the state, is yet to be seen. One thing that is for certain is that the call from Paddy’s on May 8th, 2012, will have a large impact on Massachusetts law.

Arthur Hardy-Doubleday

Author Arthur Hardy-Doubleday

Arthur Hardy-Doubleday practices law in Cambridge and Martha's Vineyard Massachusetts. He works in the areas of Real Estate, Personal Injury, and Consumer Protection Law. When not practicing law, Arthur enjoys sailing, hanging out with friends on the beach, and waking his dog "Ridiculous."

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