The Police Need A Warrant To Search Your House – Or Do They?

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.

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Don’t Worry – Be Happy!

I admit it.  I looked around the internet before I wrote this blog.  I was thinking, “Well, if someone else has already done the job, maybe I can save some time and adapt their work.”  Funny thing – I found nothing that was any good.  It is easy to find laundry lists of reasons to file bankruptcy: unemployment, illness, and divorce account for many cases.  Some sites just list the BENEFITS of filing for bankruptcy, such as protection from creditors (no more phone calls), the ability to stop a foreclosure, and the fresh start you get when it is over.  But that was not what I was shooting for either.  I wanted to articulate what I think is the best reason to file bankruptcy, in Massachusetts at least.

It is expensive to live here.  I see client after client who has a very high mortgage payment; $3000 a month or more is not uncommon.  Food is expensive here since most of it is trucked in from far away.  Water bills and utility bills are higher than most places.  However, unless you have a good job in high tech or maybe the financial sector, pay is really about the same as anywhere else.  Middle class families are financially stressed – “one pay check away from bankruptcy” is a common refrain.  No wonder we recently sent Elizabeth Warren to the Senate.  She talked about the stressed middle class too.

So, people come in – usually (but not always) couples who have a few kids in school and a house to maintain.  They are unhappy.  Personally stressed, and in a stressed relationship.  Sometimes there are accusations traded, but usually people are just sad and resigned.  They are not getting along.  Their kids sense it and start to ask questions or get stressed  themselves.  This is truly the best thing about being a bankruptcy lawyer.  I give them a way out.  It’s not easy or fun to file bankruptcy, but when it saves a marriage or resolves conflict that has up till then permeated a household, it is really worth it.  I think I have saved more marriages than the therapist in the office next door to me.

Bottom line – happiness is the best reason to file for bankruptcy.   So many people say the same thing after our first meeting; “I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.” I also get phone calls and emails telling me how much better life is a few months after filing.  If you are having problems, give me a call – I can do the same thing for you.


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