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Morse v. Cloutier

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

August 25, 2017

CHARLES MORSE and LESA MORSE, Plaintiffs, Appellees,
v.
MICHAEL CLOUTIER ET AL., Defendants, Appellants. CHARLES MORSE and LESA MORSE, Plaintiffs, Appellees,
v.
SEAN P. MAHER, Defendant, Appellant.

         APPEALS FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS [Hon. Timothy S. Hillman, U.S. District Judge]

          Thomas R. Donohue, with whom Leonard H. Kesten, Deidre Brennan Regan, and Brody, Hardoon, Perkins & Kesten, LLP were on brief, for appellants Cloutier et al.

          Joseph G. Donnellan, with whom Rogal & Donnellan, P.C. was on brief, for appellant Maher.

          James B. Triplett, with whom Triplett & Fleming was on brief, for appellees.

          Before Thompson, Selya and Barron, Circuit Judges.

          SELYA, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         The Supreme Court has recognized that "a man's house is his castle" and has interpreted the Fourth Amendment to safeguard private homes against most warrantless intrusions. Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 589-90, 596 (1980). But there are some exceptions to this rule - and in this case, the defendants (police officers acting as such) assert that exceptions for exigent circumstances and/or doorway arrests afford them at least arguable shelter. The district court disagreed, denying their motions for summary judgment. See Morse v. Mass. Exec. Office of Pub. Safety Dep't of State Police, 123 F.Supp.3d 179, 196 (D. Mass. 2015). After careful consideration, we conclude that, on the plaintiffs' supported version of the facts, the defendants' conduct violated clearly established law. See id. at 192. Cognizant, as we are, that this decision rests largely on what the district court reasonably perceived to be questions of fact, we dismiss substantial portions of these interlocutory appeals for want of appellate jurisdiction and otherwise affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Since the appealed rulings were made at the summary judgment stage, we rehearse the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmovants (here, the plaintiffs), consistent with record support. See DePoutot v. Raffaelly, 424 F.3d 112, 114 (1st Cir. 2005).

         On the evening of August 16, 2009, a concerned citizen called the Sturbridge, Massachusetts police department to report a ruckus in his backyard. When officers arrived at the caller's home, they encountered two young men who complained that someone had been hiding in the woods and throwing various objects (such as rocks and bottles) at them. The object-thrower also hurled racial epithets and told the men that he would murder them and their families in their sleep.

         The victims tentatively identified the object-thrower as their down-the-street neighbor, Charles Morse, and warned that he might be armed. Morse was a known quantity to the police: he had been charged several years earlier after threatening one of his daughter's suitors with a gun.

         Having secured the victims' reports, the officers began to hunt for Morse. They first checked the woods but came up empty-handed. Next, they went to his home, where his wife, Lesa, said that Morse was out with a friend. The officers asked her to notify them when he returned.

         The officers continued their search. By now, their team included five local officers and two state troopers (with at least one dog). Roughly an hour after first responding to the scene, the entire contingent (except for one Sturbridge officer, who lingered to watch over the young men) doubled back to Morse's home. Two officers approached the front door while four officers circled to the rear.

         This time, Morse was home. When he opened the interior back door, he locked the screen door that separated him from his visitors. He asked the officers why they were there, but they furnished no details. Instead, they asked Morse to step outside to answer some questions. When Morse refused, one of the officers told him that he was under arrest. Morse replied that the officers ought to return with a warrant, and he promptly shut the interior door.

         The officers did not leave. Instead, they ordered Morse to open the door and warned him that they would enter forcibly if he did not obey. Morse stood fast, so the officers kicked through both the screen door and the wooden interior door to gain entry. Five officers entered with their guns drawn and proceeded to arrest Morse.

         Morse's wife took umbrage at the officers' invasion of her home. As the officers effected the arrest of her husband, she answered a call from a concerned neighbor. When she informed the caller that armed policemen had just arrested her husband, she was ordered to hang up the telephone. She refused to do so, and an officer handcuffed her while others performed a protective sweep.

         Several minutes later, the officers released Lesa and transported Morse to the station. They charged him with a litany of offenses, including assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, threatening to commit murder, disorderly conduct, and disturbing the peace. All of the charges were later dropped.

         We fast-forward to late 2012, when the Morses sued the officers in a Massachusetts state court. The defendants removed the action to the federal district court. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1441. In their complaint - which invoked 42 U.S.C. § 1983[1] - the plaintiffs claimed, as relevant here, that the defendants' warrantless entry and the subsequent arrest violated their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. They also claimed that the defendants transgressed the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (MCRA), Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 12, §§ 11H, 11I, and intentionally inflicted emotional distress (a tort under state law).[2]

         Following pretrial discovery and some preliminary skirmishing, the defendants moved for summary judgment on, inter alia, qualified immunity grounds. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Three separate motions were filed: one on behalf of the five Sturbridge police officers and one on behalf of each state trooper.[3]

         In their motion papers, the defendants insisted that exigent circumstances justified their warrantless entry and, in any event, what transpired amounted to a doorway arrest. Moreover, they sought summary judgment on all of the plaintiffs' other claims.

         The district court granted the defendants' motions in part and denied them in part. See Morse, 123 F.Supp.3d at 196. The court ruled that, on the summary judgment record, the plaintiffs had made a sufficient showing that their constitutional rights were violated. See id. at 188-89. In handing down this ruling, the court concluded that the defendants had probable cause to arrest Morse. It went on to hold, though, that a reasonable juror could find that the circumstances were not sufficiently exigent to allow a warrantless invasion of the plaintiff's home and Morse's ensuing arrest. See id. at 187-89. Because a genuine issue of material fact remained, the court refused to grant either summary judgment or, by implication, qualified immunity based on exigent circumstances. See id. at 189.

         In explaining this ruling, the court noted that a full hour had passed between the officers' awareness of the contretemps involving the young men and their encounter with Morse at his home. See id. at 187. Relatedly, the court highlighted deposition testimony from one of the defendants to the effect that he and his fellow officers were not anticipating any sort of emergency situation when they knocked on the plaintiffs' door, nor were they engaged in a hot pursuit of Morse at that time. See id. Finally, the court stressed that none of the officers had expressed any concern that Morse might escape through the front door, destroy evidence, or hurt someone inside the home.[4] See id. at 188.

         At the same time, the court rejected the defendants' claim that a doorway arrest had occurred. See id. at 192. In the court's view, the circumstances of Morse's arrest - including the fact that he was behind a locked door for the entire time - distinguished his case from the doorway-arrest cases cited by the defendants. The court held that Morse's case fit comfortably within the scope of clearly established law. See id. Summing up, the court stated: "[v]iewing the facts from the record in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs, no reasonable law enforcement officer would have understood the warrantless entry and arrest of Charles Morse to comport with the Fourth Amendment." Id. This finding, of course, effectively derailed the defendants' quest for qualified immunity.[5] See id. The court further determined that genuine issues of material fact prevented the granting of summary judgment on the plaintiffs' MCRA and state tort claims. See id. at 195-96.

         State trooper Sean Maher and four local officers (Sergeant Michael Cloutier and officers Larry Bateman, David Fortier, and Ronald Obuchowski, Jr.) separately appeal the court's denial of their motions for summary judgment on the warrantless entry and arrest claims, the MCRA claims, ...


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