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Matalon v. O'Neill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 13, 2015

SCOTT MATALON, Plaintiff,
v.
MARY ANN O'NEILL and JOSEPH HYNES, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW OR FOR A NEW TRIAL

LEO T. SOROKIN, District Judge.

This action is before the Court on Defendant Sergeant Mary Ann O'Neill's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or for a New Trial. Doc. No. 127. After a four-day trial, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff Scott Matalon on two counts: unreasonable search as to Sergeant O'Neill and excessive force as to Officer Joseph Hynes. The jury found for Defendants on the remaining counts. In her Motion, Sergeant O'Neill argues that she is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the basis of qualified immunity or, alternatively, that she is entitled to a new trial on the ground that the Court erroneously refused to give a requested jury instruction on the community caretaker function. After careful consideration and for the reasons that follow, the Motion is DENIED.

I. FACTS[1]

Plaintiff Scott Matalon is the owner of a single-family home located at 16 Farrington Avenue in Brighton, Massachusetts. Farrington Avenue is a residential street that runs perpendicular to Harvard Avenue, beginning at Harvard Avenue and extending some distance beyond Matalon's home. As Farrington Avenue proceeds east from its origin at Harvard Avenue, the first cross street is Highgate Street. Highgate Street proceeds only north off of Farrington (that is, a left turn when proceeding east on Farrington from the direction of Harvard Avenue). There is a single-family home located on the northeast corner of Highgate and Farrington-14 Farrington Avenue-with its main entrance on Farrington Avenue. The adjacent house, further east but also on the north side of Farrington, is Matalon's home. The front door and front porch of Matalon's home, however, do not face Farrington Avenue. Rather, the "front" of the home-meaning the side of the home containing the porch and main entrance-faces the side yard separating Matalon's home and the residence at 14 Farrington, although Matalon's porch steps face Farrington Avenue, not the side yard. The side of Matalon's home abutting Farrington Avenue does not contain a door. Matalon's home abuts residences on all other sides.

Harvard Avenue, unlike Farrington Avenue, is a commercial street. The Camino Real Restaurant is located at 48 Harvard Avenue in the building at the corner of Harvard Avenue and Farrington Avenue. The Camino Real faces Harvard Avenue a short distance north of the intersection with Farrington Avenue. There is an alley or driveway that runs behind the building, parallel to Harvard Avenue, and exits onto Farrington Avenue between Harvard Avenue and Highgate Street.

On September 29, 2010, Felix Augusto-Perez was working at the Camino Real. At approximately 11:20 a.m., when the restaurant was closed, Mr. Augusto-Perez saw something suspicious and went into the office in the basement to investigate. In the office, Mr. Augusto-Perez saw a large black male taking money from the restaurant's safe. Mr. Augusto-Perez confronted the robber who brandished a weapon and fled up the stairs and out of the restaurant. Mr. Augusto-Perez, followed by another employee, chased the robber out the back door of the restaurant. The robber ran down the alley behind the restaurant and then turned left on Farrington Avenue. Shortly thereafter, with Mr. Augusto-Perez in pursuit, the robber turned left onto Highgate Street. Mr. Augusto-Perez lost sight of the individual when he turned right off Highgate Street into the backyard of 14 Farrington Avenue.

About the time when Mr. Augusto-Perez lost sight of the robber, he called the police to report the robbery. On the call, Mr. Augusto-Perez stated that the robber pointed a knife at him in the basement of the restaurant, although sometime later he told the police that the weapon was, in fact, a screwdriver. A police radio call dispatched officers to the location to respond to an armed robbery and described the suspect as a black male wearing a red shirt.

The first police officer to arrive on the scene was Officer Elvin Aviles, who arrived at the Camino Real at approximately 11:30 a.m. Mr. Augusto-Perez described to Officer Aviles what had just occurred, reported that about $9, 000 had been taken from the safe, and walked Officer Aviles along the route of the chase.

Officer Joseph Hynes also responded to the dispatch regarding the armed robbery. A subsequent radio call, received en route, informed Officer Hynes that the suspect had been chased down Farrington Avenue, so he and his partner, Officer Daryl Tran, drove down Farrington Avenue. On Farrington, the officers were flagged down by an unidentified individual standing on the south side of Farrington somewhere between Highgate and 16 Farrington who indicated to the officers that he had seen a black male run down the walkway between 14 and 16 Farrington.[2] The officers parked their cruiser on Farrington Avenue and proceeded down the walkway towards the backyard of 16 Farrington until they were about even with the front door of the home.

Shortly after Officers Hynes and Tran arrived at 16 Farrington, Sergeant Mary Ann O'Neill joined them at that location. Sergeant O'Neill walked up the steps-which face Farrington Avenue-and onto the porch of 16 Farrington. She looked through a glass pane in the single-family home's closed exterior door and could see an interior vestibule door open; she could also see what appeared to be a door from the first floor to the home's basement also open. She tried the door handle and, finding it unlocked, she opened the door. At this point, she stated that there was an "open door, " and Officers Hynes and Tran, at this time in the side yard about even with the front door, ceased proceeding down the walkway and joined her on the porch. Sergeant O'Neill made a radio call for a K-9 unit, saying in the call that there was an "open door." More police arrived, and officers established a perimeter around the house while they waited for a K-9 unit to arrive.[3] Two K-9 units, Officers Garcia and Saltalamacchia, arrived within ten to fifteen minutes of Sergeant O'Neill's call. Sergeant O'Neill spoke with them and instructed them to clear the house. Officer Garcia and her dog, Cuba, entered the house with Officer Saltalamacchia as cover. Shortly thereafter, they encountered Matalon, the home's owner. The officers found no other person in the home, nor any evidence linking the home to the robbery.[4]

II. DISCUSSION

Sergeant O'Neill brings two challenges to the jury's verdict in favor of Matalon on the unreasonable search count. First, she argues that she is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the doctrine of qualified immunity applies to her actions. Second, she argues that she is entitled to a new trial on the ground that the Court erroneously denied her request to instruct the jury on the community caretaker exception to the warrant requirement.

A. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

Sergeant O'Neill contends that she is entitled to qualified immunity because the law was not clearly established as to her authority to enter Matalon's house pursuant to the community caretaker function and, further, ...


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