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First Circuit Modifies Emergency Aid Doctrine for Warrantless Entry of a Home

by Richard Resch

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit modified its position on the emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement by announcing: “officers seeking to justify their warrantless entry need only demonstrate ‘an objectively reasonable basis for believing’ that ‘a person within [the house] is in need of immediate aid.’ ” In doing so, the Court explained that it is bringing “our circuit law into conformity with the Supreme Court’s precedent….”

On March 3, 2015, Matthew Hill overdosed and was transported to Morton Hospital in Taunton, Massachusetts. The following day, his sister filed a petition in district court to civilly commit Matthew for his protection as a drug addict pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws. Ch. 123, § 35.

The state district court judge issued a warrant for his apprehension. The subject line of the warrant read: “Matthew Hill, 3 Eldridge Street.” Immediately below that, it read “CURRENLTY AT MORTON HOSPITAL.” The foregoing information was taken from the sister’s petition, which listed 3 Eldridge as Matthew’s address. However, that was his parents’ home address; he lived at 44 Weir Street.

Later that day, police arrived at 3 Eldridge Street to execute the § 35 warrant. They knocked but did not receive any answer other than from the dogs inside. One officer believed that he saw “a silhouette of something there, a figure of some sort that disappeared out of sight.” Another officer believed that he “saw a curtain move” and believed that a person was inside.

They then went to a side door that was unlocked, but they were hesitant to go inside because of the dogs. So the officers sprayed a fire extinguisher multiple times inside the home to keep the dogs at bay. Once inside, they conducted a sweep of the home, but no one was there.

Because of the extensive damage caused by the fire extinguisher, Matthew’s parents (the “Hills”) were forced to vacate the premises for five days, and extensive cleaning was required to restore the home to a habitable condition.

The Hills filed suit against the officers in their individual capacities and the City of Taunton. They brought a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting that the officers had violated their Fourth Amendment rights. Following discovery, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which the district court granted. It ruled that the officers’ actions were covered by the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement. The court observed that even if they had violated the Fourth Amendment they had a “strong case” for qualified immunity because there was no clearly established Supreme Court precedent on whether a § 35 warrant constitutes exigent circumstances to enter a third party’s home.

The First Circuit affirmed the district court’s granting the motion for summary judgment but on a different basis, viz., the defendant officers are entitled to qualified immunity. The Court began its discussion by noting the U.S. Supreme Court reiterated the standard for qualified immunity from suit under § 1983 earlier in the year. Officers are immune from suit unless “(1) they violate a federal statutory or constitutional right, and (2) the unlawfulness of their conduct was ‘clearly established at the time.’ ” District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S. Ct. 577 (2018). The First Circuit has held that “clearly established law” must be sufficiently “particularized” to serve “as a fair and clear warning” that the officers’ conduct is unconstitutional. Alfano v. Lynch, 847 F.3d 71 (1st Cir. 2017).

The First Circuit explained that there is “no clearly established law” applicable to the facts in the present case. According to the Court, neither it nor the U.S. Supreme Court has ever ruled on whether a § 35 warrant (or any type of warrant to force attendance at a civil commitment hearing) provides sufficient basis to justify the warrantless entry into a home under the emergency aid exception. Furthermore, at the time the Hills filed suit, the First Circuit and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts disagreed “as to the government’s burden of proof under the emergency aid exception.” As a result, the law governing this issue could not have been “clearly established at the time” the officers entered the Hills’ home.

The Court then provided clarification of its case law regarding the emergency aid exception. To align its case law with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the First Circuit adopted the “objectively reasonable basis” standard as the government’s burden of proof under the emergency aid exception. In doing so, the Court expressly rejected the “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause” standards. It noted that the Fifth Circuit in United States v. Toussaint, 838 F.3d 503 (5th Cir. 2016), and the Sixth Circuit in Schreiber v. Moe, 596 F.3d 323 (6th Cir. 2010), have also both adopted the “objectively reasonable basis” standard with respect to the emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.  

In applying the newly announced standard to the facts in this case, the Court concluded that the officers’ decision to enter the Hills’ home was objectively reasonable at the time. Matthew had a history of overdosing and resisting the police, the subject line of the § 35 warrant indicated the Hills’ home, and multiple officers believed they saw someone inside the house.

On those facts, the Court determined “a reasonable officer could have reasonably concluded that her entry was lawful pursuant to the emergency aid exception.” Finally, the Court observed that “where there is reasonable debate about the constitutionality of the officers’ actions, there is qualified immunity.”

Accordingly, the First Circuit affirmed the district court’s granting the motion for summary judgment against the Hills. See Hill v. Walsh, 884 F.3d 16 (1st Cir. 2018). 

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