The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently decided Commonwealth v. Gordon, 13-P-1626. In this case, police received a 911 call about a possible disturbance at an apartment building. When officers got to the building, a neighbor told the police she heard arguing and “crashing sounds” from her neighbor’s apartment.
When the police knocked on the door, no one answered. It was quiet inside. End of story, right? Wrong. The police went to a bar in the same building to talk to the person who made the 911 call – the bartender. The bartender said a woman staying in that apartment with her boyfriend had come to the bar earlier, looking “frantic.” The woman told the bartender she was “not all right,” and asked the bartender to call the police.
The problem was, when the police arrived, the woman was nowhere to be found. No one knew if she went back to the apartment, or left the area. Despite the quiet, the police entered the apartment, without a search warrant. While searching, the police found no one, but they did find drugs. They later arrested the boyfriend for possession of drugs.
There are some exceptions to the search warrant requirement, including when the police have a good reason to believe someone is in danger. In such cases the police can enter a home to aid the endangered person.
The drug evidence found while investigating a possible domestic violence incident was held to be admissible, despite the absence of a search warrant. This seems to be an expansion of the emergency aid exception to the search warrant requirement. The trial judge ruled the police did not have enough evidence of emergency to violate the right to privacy and enter the apartment. The woman was unhurt when she complained to the bartender, and no one knew where she was. This judge ruled that the drug evidence seized could not be used at the boyfriend’s trial given that the police entered illegally. The Appeals Court, however, overruled the trial court. The Appeals Court claimed domestic violence was a serious enough problem in the Commonwealth that entry was justified.
The right to privacy of the apartment owner were minimized by the Appeals court. I fully agree that domestic violence is horrible, and needs to be stopped and punished. Had there been more evidence of violence, the police may have been justified in entering. But, there was not. It appears the police had a hunch, and nothing more.
This is yet another example of how the government and the courts continue to whittle away at our right to privacy. This case is not as dramatic as the Snowden NSA revelations, but it might be more important in practice. The government knowing if someone called their brother yesterday is not very important, but police entering homes for inspections based on hunches is a serious matter. They need a better reason than a flimsy suspicion to do bunk checks on us.