Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Commonwealth v. Arias

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Essex

March 15, 2019


          Heard: September 7, 2018

         Indictments found and returned in the Superior Court Department on April 14, 2014. A pretrial motion to suppress evidence was heard by Mary-Lou Rup, J.

         An application for leave to prosecute an interlocutory appeal was allowed by Hines, J., in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county of Suffolk, and the appeal was reported by her to the Appeals Court. After review by the Appeals Court, the Supreme Judicial Court granted leave to obtain further appellate review.

          Esther J. Horwich (Stephen J. Wright also present) for the defendant.

          Kenneth E. Steinfield, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

          David R. Rangaviz, Committee for Public Counsel Services, for Committee for Public Counsel Services, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Gaziano, & Lowy, JJ.

          GAZIANO, J.

         In this case, we confront the scope of two exceptions to the warrant requirement that have resulted in some confusion in previous jurisprudence in the Commonwealth: the emergency aid exception and the exigent circumstances exception.[1]

         1. Background.

         a. Facts.

         We summarize the facts found by the motion judge following an evidentiary hearing on the defendant's motion to suppress, supplemented by uncontroverted and undisputed facts in the record that were implicitly credited by the judge and that do not detract from the judge's ultimate findings. See Commonwealth v. Jones-Pannell, 472 Mass. 429, 431 (2015). We reserve some details for later discussion.

         On the evening of March 4, 2014, the Lawrence police department received a tip from an unnamed 911 caller.[2] The caller stated that she was "coming down the street" when she saw two "Spanish guys" "with a gun . . . going up to the building" located at "7 Royal Street" in a residential neighborhood in Lawrence. The caller stated that "they . . . had a hat on," and were wearing "a jacket and a coat," one of which "was gr[a]y and the other was black." The caller "heard . . . one of them load the gun," and saw the men enter the building. The caller said that "there's always a little movement in that building," and acknowledged that she was "not really sure what's going on." In addition, the caller stated that she was new to the neighborhood, and that she had not seen the men previously. She provided the dispatcher with her home address, and the dispatcher indicated to the caller that he was aware of the caller's telephone number.

         A dispatcher subsequently issued the following report: "Any detective or any available north car [near the specified address], caller said she saw two Hispanic males enter a house, one in a gray jacket, one in a black jacket, the male was loading gun, was loading a cli[p] to a handgun."[3]

         The motion judge credited that, during the general period in which the 911 call was made, the Lawrence police department was investigating a "rash" of "home invasions" believed to be the work of a "crew" from New York. The judge noted, however, that the evidence did not indicate "how recently or where" the home invasions had occurred, or if any home invasion had "occurred in the immediate vicinity or neighbor[hood] of" the particular street.

         Multiple police officers responded to the dispatch. The address given was one of two numbers associated with a four-unit apartment building. The building had a single front door, marked with the number "5" on the right side of the door and the number "7" on the left side of the door. The building contained two apartments on the ground floor, numbered "5A" and "7A," and two apartments on the upper floor, numbered "5B" and "7B." At the rear of the building, there was a porch with two entrances.

         Sergeant Michael Simard of the Lawrence police department was the supervising patrol sergeant that evening. He arrived at the scene in a marked cruiser and was wearing a uniform. Simard saw no one outside the building. He and a number of other officers monitored the front entrance.

         Sergeant Joseph Cerullo of the Lawrence police department's special operations division arrived at the scene in a marked cruiser; he, too, was wearing a uniform and a badge.[4] Cerullo and four other officers, including two members of the canine unit of the Essex County sheriff's department, moved to the rear of the building.

         At the front of the building, Simard spoke to residents of unit 7A, the first-floor apartment located across the hall from unit 5A. The residents of unit 7A denied seeing or hearing anything out of the ordinary, and said that they did not know who lived in unit 5A. The residents did describe, however, the "layout of the apartment [at unit 5A] as far as what door leads to where." Simard commented that the residents of unit 7A were scared because of the "[fifteen] police officers with their guns drawn." Simard also stated that, except for the residents of unit 7A, no residents of the building appeared to be at home.

         After obtaining the telephone number of the 911 caller, Simard spoke with her by telephone.[5] The caller told Simard that she had seen three males whom she did not recognize talking on the front step of the building located at "5-7" on that street. The caller stated that she had heard the sound of a "rack" being pulled back on a semiautomatic handgun, [6] a sound she recognized because she was "from Lawrence." According to Simard, the caller did not see a firearm. The caller was nervous, and was aware of recent armed robberies "in the area." The judge found that the "officers at the scene learned the above-described information within minutes of their arrival."[7]

         The caller told Simard that the men likely had a key to the building because they entered the front door "easily." Cerullo acknowledged that he and the other officers did not consider whether the men who allegedly entered the building with a firearm were residents of the building.

         At the rear of the building, Cerullo observed a Hispanic male leave the building from the left rear door. The man had facial hair and was "wearing a black and gray sweater." He was identified at the evidentiary hearing as "Wascar Bievenido Guerrero Diaz."

         With his firearm drawn, Cerullo shouted, "Lawrence Police. Show me your hands." From the front of the building, Simard was able to hear Cerullo. Diaz appeared "shocked" and "quickly went back inside" the building, "closing the door behind him." Cerullo and another officer attempted to enter the building through the door Diaz had used, but, as the judge determined, they "found it locked."[8] According to Cerullo, the door was associated with apartment "number 5." Cerullo did not specify whether he was referring to apartment 5A, 5B, or both.

         Cerullo moved to the front of the building to discuss the situation with Simard, while four officers remained at the rear of the building. Focusing their attention on unit 5A, Cerullo and Simard made the decision to enter that unit without a warrant.[9]

         Within approximately three to eight minutes after police arrived at the scene, Cerullo "entered the front door forcefully," and then led a number of officers through the front door of the building and into unit 5A. Conducting a "protective sweep" for any injured persons and the Hispanic male he had seen earlier at the rear of the building, Cerullo moved through the living room toward the rear of the building. Other officers searched different areas of the apartment. They did not find any people, but they did observe in plain view what appeared to be illegal narcotics, a scale, and plastic bags strewn on the floor. The officers did not seize anything at that point.

         At the rear of the apartment, Cerullo encountered a door leading to a hallway outside unit 5A. In the hallway, he saw another door. The officers believed that this was the door that Diaz had used minutes earlier. Cerullo also saw a stairway leading up to unit 5B and down to a basement; a light was on in the basement. After confirming the absence of any people inside unit 5A, Cerullo, other officers, and several canine unit dogs searched the basement; they found and arrested three individuals. They did not search anywhere else in the building for the suspected home invaders.

         Based on observations made during the warrantless search of unit 5A, officers obtained a search warrant. Pursuant to the warrant, they searched unit 5A again and seized items from the apartment.

         b. Procedural history.

         The defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence seized pursuant to the warrant, on the ground that the warrant was predicated on observations made during an unconstitutional search. Following an evidentiary hearing, a Superior Court judge allowed the motion.[10] The Commonwealth filed a petition seeking leave to pursue an interlocutory appeal, and a single justice of this court allowed the appeal to proceed in the Appeals Court. In a split decision, a panel of the Appeals Court reversed the motion judge, after concluding that the warrantless search was permissible under the emergency aid doctrine. See Commonwealth v. Arias, 92 Mass.App.Ct. 439, 449 (2017). We allowed the defendant's application for further appellate review.

         2. Discussion.

         "In reviewing a ruling on a motion to suppress, we accept the judge's subsidiary findings of fact absent clear error 'but conduct an independent review of [the judge's] ultimate findings and conclusions of law.'" Commonwealth v. Cawthron, 479 Mass. 612, 616 (2018), quoting Commonwealth v. Scott, 440 Mass. 642, 646 (2004) .

         A "warrantless government search of a home is presumptively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and art. 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights." Commonwealth v. Entwistle, 463 Mass. 205, 213 (2012), cert, denied, 568 U.S. 1129 (2013). See Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 459 (2011); Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006). "The presumption against warrantless searches reflects the importance of the warrant requirement to our democratic society." Commonwealth v. Tyree, 455 Mass. 676, 683 (2010) . "Under the exclusionary rule, evidence seized pursuant to an unreasonable search generally will be suppressed." Commonwealth v. Tuschall, 476 Mass. 581, 584 (2017) . "Warrantless searches may be justifiable, however, if the circumstances of the search fall within an established exception to the warrant requirement." Id.

         a. Emergency aid exception.

         The emergency aid doctrine establishes one such "narrow exception to the warrant requirement." See Commonwealthv.Duncan, 467 Mass. 746, 754, cert, denied, 135 S.Ct. 224 (2014). The emergency aid exception applies when law enforcement officers enter a dwelling to provide emergency assistance. See Commonwealthv.Snell, 428 Mass. 766, 774, cert, denied, 527 U.S. 1010 (1999) (entry is reasonable under emergency aid exception when made "not to gather evidence of criminal ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.