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Castagna v. Edwards

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

January 17, 2019




         After a jury found in favor of all Defendants as to all claims, Plaintiffs Christopher Castagna and Gavin Castagna moved for a new trial, asserting that: (1) the jury verdict on the 42 U.S.C. § 1983 unlawful entry claim against Defendants Daran Edwards, Keith Kaplan, and Harry Jean is against the law and against the weight of the credible evidence; (2) the jury was improperly instructed on probable cause to arrest Plaintiffs for disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace; and (3) defense counsel improperly argued in her closing that Christopher Castagna was racist and that the court's supplemental jury instruction was insufficient to cure the prejudice, thus warranting a new trial on all claims. Pls.' Mot. New Trial at 1-2 [#292]. Finding that relief is not merited under the second and third argument, but that the verdict is against the law as to the warrantless entry into the home and that the warrantless entry on the facts at trial is not protected by qualified immunity, Plaintiffs' motion is ALLOWED as to the § 1983 unlawful entry claim against Defendants Edwards, Kaplan, and Jean, but is otherwise DENIED.

         I. STANDARD

         “A district court may set aside the jury's verdict and order a new trial only if the verdict is against the law, against the weight of the credible evidence, or tantamount to a miscarriage of justice.” Casillas-Diaz v. Palau, 463 F.3d 77, 81 (1st Cir. 2006). In considering the weight of the evidence, the court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Cambridge Plating Co. v. Napco, Inc., 85 F.3d 752, 764 (1st Cir. 1996).


         A. The Evidence at Trial

         The events leading up to Defendants Edwards, Kaplan and Jean's entry to the apartment were, for the most part, not in dispute.

         On March 17, 2013, Plaintiffs and most of the non-police witnesses spent the day enjoying various Saint Patrick's Day festivities in South Boston, eventually arriving at Christopher Castagna's first-floor apartment on East 6th Street. Defendants, all Boston Police Officers, spent the day patrolling the Saint Patrick's Day parade route, and after that, responding to party calls.

         At 5:54 p.m., a 911 caller reported a loud party at the intersection of East 6th Street and O Street in South Boston. According to the caller, the party participants were “whipping” beer bottles off the second-floor porch, which faced 6th Street. Officer Kaplan did not hear the 911 call, but he received notice from dispatch of a disturbance and the street intersection where the party was located.

         Around 7:29 p.m., when police officers, including Kaplan, Edwards, and Jean, approached East 6th Street and O Street, the only apartment with music and yelling was a first-floor apartment on 6th Street, later identified as Christopher Castagna's apartment. Officer Kaplan observed several people leave the apartment and other people inside drinking and dancing. Detective Jean observed what appeared to be someone vomiting on the sidewalk outside of the apartment. Detective Edwards heard loud music as he approached the apartment.

         According to the officers, the front door of the apartment was open. (Although Plaintiffs attempted to show that the temperature was too cool for the door to be open, there was no dispute that people were entering and exiting the apartment, and there was no direct evidence to contradict the officers' assertion that at the moment they arrived, the door was ajar). Officer Kaplan stepped into the apartment first and yelled “hello” and “Boston Police” into the apartment. No one answered right away. Without asking for permission, Officer Kaplan and Detectives Edwards and Jean walked into the apartment. At this point, the people inside the apartment stopped dancing, turned down the music, and walked over towards Officer Kaplan.

         Officer Kaplan testified that when he entered the apartment, his objective was to get the attention of the homeowners and to tell them to keep the doors shut and the noise down. Officers Edwards and Jean also testified that their objectives were to contact the owner and ask him to turn the music down. Officer Kaplan and Detective Jean further testified that they had no intention of arresting anyone at the party.

         After entering, the officers inquired about where the homeowners were. Some guests told the officers that the owner of the apartment, Christopher Castagna, was down the hall, in the bathroom. While Officer Kaplan and Detective Edwards stayed in the kitchen speaking to the guests, Detective Jean and another officer, Terry Cotton, walked down the hall.

         B. The Officers' Entry Was Unlawful and Was Not Protected by Qualified Immunity

         Plaintiffs argue that the entry of Officer Kaplan and Detectives Edwards and Jean into Plaintiffs' home and Christopher Castagna's bedroom was not supported by a warrant or exigent circumstances, and was not entitled to qualified immunity. Pls.' Mem. Supp. Mot. New Trial (“Pls.' Mem.”) at 8-12 [#293]. Defendants respond that exigent circumstances did exist and moreover, that the officers' actions were justified by an exception to the warrant requirement for police officers engaging in community caretaking functions. Defs.' Opp. Pls.' Mot. New Trial (“Defs.' Opp.”) at 11-14 [#298]. Defendants further argue that the officers are also entitled to qualified immunity due to the unsettled nature of the community caretaking exception in 2013, at the time of the entry. Id. at 16.

         1. The Officers' Entry Was Unlawful

         The Fourth Amendment shields individuals from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. “It is common ground that a man's home is his castle and, as such, the home is shielded by the highest level of Fourth Amendment protection.” Matalon v. Hynnes, 806 F.3d 627, 633 (1st Cir. 2015) (citing United States v. Martin, 413 F.3d 139, 146 (1st Cir. 2005)). “‘A warrantless police entry into a residence is presumptively unreasonable unless it falls within the compass of one of a few well-delineated exceptions' to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement.” Id. (quoting United States v. Romain, 393 F.3d 63, 68 (1st Cir. 2004)). a. Exigent Circumstances The well-delineated exceptions offered for exigent circumstances include: “(1) ‘hot pursuit' of a fleeing felon; (2) threatened destruction of evidence inside a residence before a warrant can be obtained; (3) a risk that the suspect may escape from the residence undetected; or (4) a threat, posed by a suspect, to the lives or safety of the public, the police officers, or to [themselves].” Hegarty v. Somerset Cty., 53 F.3d 1367, 1374 (1st Cir. 1995) (citing Minnesota v. Olsen, 495 U.S. 91, 100 (1990)). “[A] subset of the exigent circumstances rubric covers ‘emergency aid.'” Matalon, 806 F.3d at 636. Within this emergency aid exception, “law enforcement officers may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.” Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006). “[A] cognizable exigency must present a ‘compelling necessity for immediate action that w[ould] not brook the delay of obtaining a warrant.'” Hegarty, 53 F.3d at 1374 (quoting United States v. Almonte, 952 F.2d 20, 22 (1st Cir. 1991)). Thus, in an emergency situation, police “‘may enter a residence without a warrant if they reasonably believe that swift action is required to safeguard life or prevent serious harm.'” Matalon, 806 F.3d at 636 (quoting United States v. Martins, 413 F.3d 139, 147 (1st Cir. 2005)).

         At the hearing on the pending motion, Defendants argued that the officers properly entered the apartment without a warrant due to a concern for safety of underage party goers. The weight of the evidence does not support this claim of a concern for the safety of underage party goers, let alone a need for emergency assistance. Although Detective Jean testified that he saw someone vomiting twice outside of the apartment, he also admitted that he did not look for or inquire inside about the person who vomited. No other officer testified that they observed any vomiting inside or outside of the apartment. Prior to entering the apartment, none of the officers observed anything remarkable about the scene in the apartment; Officer Kaplan testified that he observed people dancing and Detective Edwards testified that he observed people chatting and drinking from cups.

         During the trial, none of the officers articulated any concern as to an emergency need to enter. Nor did the officers articulate a specific safety concern other than the possibility that the party goers may have been underage, and as to that concern, none of the officers testified to asking any party goers their age or for identification. Officer Kaplan testified that upon entering the home, the guests were cooperative. None of the officers testified that the anyone tried to run or hide from the officers to avoid detection. Cf. Howes v. Hitchcock, 66 F.Supp. 2d. 203, 208-215 (D. Mass. Sept. 9, 1999) (finding that officers are entitled to qualified immunity for entering house after monitoring underage party outside, announcing police presence at the entryway, and observing teenagers run to basement and climb out of bedroom window to escape detection).

         Furthermore, all three men testified that they were responding to a noise complaint and that their primary objective in entering the home was to find the owner and ask him to turn down the music. In Commonwealth v. Kiser, 48 Mass.App.Ct. 647 (2000), like here, the police officers entered a home without a warrant when responding to a noise disturbance complaint. Id. at 649. As the court explained there, “[t]his situation does not involve the degree of exigency needed to bypass the Fourth Amendment.” Id. at 651-652. Thus, the officer's actions do not fall within the exigent circumstance exception.[1]

         b. Community Caretaking Exception

         Defendants also argue that the search was appropriate as a “community caretaker” search because the search was “totally divorced from criminal investigation activity.” Defs.' Mem. at 12 [298]. The court rejected this argument when Defendants asked for a “community caretaker” instruction for the jury and rejects the argument again here.

         This exception to the warrant requirement for searches “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute” has been allowed by the United States Supreme Court as to cars. Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441, 447-48 (1973); see also United States v. Rodriguez-Morales, 929 F.2d 780, 785 (1st Cir. 1991) (“[b]ecause of the ubiquity of the automobile . . . and the automobile's nature . . . the police are constantly faced with dynamic situations . . . in which they, in the exercise of their community caretaking function, must interact with car and driver to promote public safety.”). In performing this community caretaking role, a police officer is “‘a jack-of-all emergencies,' . . . expected to aid those in distress, combat actual hazards, prevent potential hazards from materializing, and provide an infinite variety of services to preserve and protect public safety.” Id. at 784-85 (1st Cir. 1991) (internal citation omitted).

         In the 45 years since Cady, the First Circuit has declined to directly address claims of a community caretaking exception for searches of homes, but also has not endorsed such an exception. In United States v. Tibolt, 72 F.3d 965 (1st Cir. 1995), where the court did not need to reach the issue after finding exigent circumstances permitted the warrantless entry, the court responded to the government's request to characterize the warrantless entry as a “so-called ‘community caretaker'” exception, with a citation to Cady's note of the “‘constitutional difference' between search of home and search of automobile.” Id. at 969 n.2 (quoting Cady, 413 U.S. at 439). The Tibolt court also listed decisions from three other circuits finding that Cady applied only to searches of ...

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