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Hill v. Walsh

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

February 27, 2018

ROLAND G. HILL; MARY R. HILL, Plaintiffs, Appellants,
EDWARD WALSH, individually and in his official capacity as Chief of the City of Taunton Police Department; CITY OF TAUNTON, MA; DEBORAH LAVOIE; WILLIAM HENAULT; TROY ENOS; JOSEPH MARQUES, Defendants, Appellees.


          Paul W. Patten for appellants.

          Daniel F. de Abreau, First Assistant City Solicitor, for appellee

          Before Howard, Chief Judge, Lynch and Thompson, Circuit Judges


         In this opinion, we bring our circuit law into conformity with the Supreme Court's precedent on the emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment requirement that a warrant be obtained before police entry into homes. We explain below.

         On March 3, 2015, Matthew Hill, age 28, overdosed and was taken to Morton Hospital in Taunton, Massachusetts. The next day, several Taunton police officers arrived at his parents' home to escort Matthew to a state court civil-commitment hearing. On Matthew's sister's application, a Taunton district judge had issued a warrant earlier that day to apprehend Matthew pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 123, § 35. The warrant indicated both that Matthew was currently at the hospital and that his home address was 3 Eldridge Street. The officers went to that address. When two officers thought that they saw movement inside the home, but no one came to the door, the police entered, believing Matthew to be in danger of overdosing inside. Damage was done to the home as the officers subdued the Hills' dogs upon entry.

         Matthew's parents, who owned the home at 3 Eldridge Street, brought suit against the officers and the City of Taunton under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the police's entry had violated their Fourth Amendment rights. They also raised two related state law claims. The district court entered judgment in favor of the officers and the City on all counts on the grounds that there was no Fourth Amendment violation. We affirm on a different basis.

         Because the law on the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement was not clearly established at the time of the incident, we uphold the district court's entry of judgment based on qualified immunity. We also take this opportunity to clarify our circuit's emergency aid doctrine: 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.'" Michigan v. Fisher, 558 U.S. 45, 47 (2009) (alteration in original) (internal quotations omitted). They do not need to establish that their belief approximated probable cause that such an emergency existed. We thus modify our previous pronouncements in United States v. Martins, 413 F.3d 139 (1st Cir. 2005), and its progeny.


         The plaintiffs, Roland and Mary Hill, have lived at 3 Eldridge Street in Taunton, Massachusetts for over twenty years. Their adult son, Matthew Hill, grew up there. Over the last decade, Matthew has struggled with opioid addiction and substance abuse. At the time of the incident giving rise to this case, Matthew was staying at 44 Weir Street, an apartment building owned by his father, and had done so for approximately six years.

         A. March 3, 2015 Incident

         On the evening of March 3, 2015, Matthew's sister, Amanda Hill, called 911 upon discovering Matthew behind his building at 44 Weir Street, on the verge of an overdose. Matthew was barely able to stand, with "eyes . . . rolling to the back of his head." Amanda told the emergency responder that "Matthew . . . was going to kill himself if he didn't get help." An ambulance and police officers from the Taunton Police Department ("TPD") were immediately dispatched to 44 Weir Street.

         After a violent struggle, the police subdued Matthew and transported him to Morton Hospital in Taunton. In response to the incident, the dispatcher on duty placed an entry in the police blotter indicating that Matthew had been taken to Morton Hospital. Matthew remained there as a patient until he was discharged into the TPD's custody on March 5, 2015.

         B. Application for a Section 35 Warrant

         The next day, March 4, 2015, Amanda filed a petition in Taunton district court to civilly commit Matthew as a substance abuser pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws. ch. 123, § 35. Section 35 permits the court to issue a warrant "for the apprehension and appearance" of an individual if "there are reasonable grounds to believe that [he] will not appear [at his civil commitment hearing] and that any further delay in the proceedings would present an immediate danger to [his] physical well-being . . . ." Id.

         This was the second time Amanda had filed a section 35 petition as to Matthew. Her first attempt to have him committed, a few months before, was unsuccessful because the police had been unable to locate Matthew before the warrant for apprehension expired.

         On March 4, 2015, the state district judge determined that a warrant for apprehension under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 125, § 35, was necessary in Matthew's case, and issued one at 2:20 PM. The section 35 warrant had in its subject line, "Matthew Hill, 3 Eldridge Street." Directly below, in boldfaced text, it read: "CURRENTLY AT MORTON HOSPITAL." This information was taken from Amanda's petition, which listed "3 Eldridge Street" as Matthew's address, and indicated that he was currently at Morton Hospital. The section 35 warrant also stated that unless the subject of the warrant could be "brought before a judge prior to 4:30 PM on the same day that it is executed, " it would expire.

         C. Execution of the ...

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