A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that Boston police officers did nothing wrong when they walked through an open door into a boisterous party at East 6th and O streets on St. Patrick's Day in 2013 in response to a noise complaint - and wound up arresting several partygoers after a shoving match broke out.
The decision overturns a lower-court ruling that Boston police officers Harry Jean, Keith Kaplan and Daran Edwards, who initially walked into Christopher Castagna's apartment should not have done so - and means the Castagna and his brother Gavin won't get the settlement ordered by that judge: $1.
At issue was whether three officers - the Castagnas initially sued some 20 officers, but the suits against most were dismissed - should have just walked into Christopher Castagna's apartment without a warrant or his permission after responding to a noise complaint, spotting one seemingly underage lad come outside whirl around and vomit and seeing other apparent pre-21ers through a window.
Castagna was not in a position to grant permission since he was, according to the court's summary of the case, in a rear bedroom, drinking and possibly toking up, while his guests grooved to the loud music in the living room, which made it impossible for him to hear the cops shouting "Boston Police!" as they approached and then entered his open apartment door.
In its ruling, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit said that the officers were protected by "qualified immunity" - basically, they were doing their job, and more specifically by a "community caretaking" exception to the Fourth Amendment that lets police take certain actions to safeguard the public even in the absence of the sort of serious crime that is normally required for warrantless searches. In this case, that meant looking into the loud music blaring from the apartment and the apparent presence of several underage drinkers, at least one of them literally sick to his stomach.
According to the court summary of the case, Boston officers arrived at East 6th and O shortly after 7:30 p.m. on March 17, 2013 - roughly 90 minutes after somebody called 911 to complain about a loud party.
By early evening, many of the guests at the Castagnas' party were intoxicated. Different guests estimated that they drank "between [twelve] and [fifteen] beers," eleven to thirteen beers, "ten beers," and "seven or eight beers" that day, respectively. ...
Jean arrived slightly after his fellow officers. He also heard music, saw that the front door was open, and noticed through the window that the people inside were drinking. He, too, believed that some of the guests were underage. As he approached the apartment, Jean "saw a young male come stumbling outside" onto the public sidewalk. Jean testified that the young man "walked around like -- you know, like a circle or half-circle, and then he hurled over, vomiting, and he did that twice. And then he stumbled back into the address that we were looking at."
Kaplan reached the apartment door and yelled "hello" several times and then "Boston Police." No one answered. According to Kaplan, "[w]hen no one answered, we kind of walked in."
At that point, none of the officers were intending to arrest anyone at the party, for underage drinking or any other crime. Kaplan explained that this response was in line with the police department's normal practice for responding to noise complaints: "Typically, we would just knock on the door, try to see who the owners are and tenants and have them turn the music down, shut the doors, keep the windows up and keep everything inside." Indeed, several of the officers did not have their handcuffs on them, which would have been necessary to make an arrest, explaining that they left them behind to lighten their load during a long day walking the parade route.
The officers explained at trial that there were two reasons for entering the home that evening: (1) to respond to the noise complaint by finding the homeowners and having them lower the volume of their music and (2) to make sure that any underage drinkers were safe, including the young-looking man who had vomited outside the home and returned inside.
The guests were in the middle of a dance competition when the police entered through the open door, and they did not immediately respond. Eventually, when they noticed the officers, the guests turned off the music. Kaplan explained that there had been a complaint of underage drinking and asked for the homeowners. There was a lull in which no one answered. Eventually some of the guests told the police that the owner's name was "Chris," but he was not in the room and was "in the back or the bathroom or something to that effect." Jean and another officer went to look for Christopher while the others stayed in the kitchen with most of the guests. ...
The court continued that the officers eventually found the Castagnas in a rear bedroom, that Christopher Castagna opened the door but that when he saw one of the cops eyeing some pot in the room, he tried to slam the door shut, only the officer's foot was right there, preventing him from closing the door all the way.
In the bedroom, Christopher shoved Jean a second time and the conflict between the officers and the party guests escalated. Other officers were called as back-up. Eventually, several of the guests and both brothers were arrested on various charges.
The brothers eventually sued all the cops who responded in federal court, on a variety of charges, including false imprisonment, assault and battery and malicious prosecution - and violation of their Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful entry and their First Amendment rights.
The case came to trial in 2018. The judge declined to tell the jury about the "community caretaking" exception to the Fourth Amendment, but the jury found for the officers under the "exigent circumstances" exception, which is the one normally used for serious criminal activities - that the officers had probable cause to know they had to act immediately to stop something serious.
The Castagnas' attorney filed for a new trial, calling the entry into the apartment and then Christopher Castagna's bedroom "a miscarriage of justice." Instead of a new trial, however, the judge amended the decision to find that the three specific officers were, in fact, guilty of "unlawful entry" because they had neither a warrant nor Christopher Castagna's permission to enter the apartment.
The court awarded the two brothers one dollar in nominal damages from each of the three officers. The court did not disturb any of the other jury verdicts.
The officers then appealed. In its ruling, the appeals court allowed as how there is some ambiguity about community caretaking - in fact, the appeals court did not directly address it until a case after the officers' trial - but not so much that the trial judge, Indira Talwani, shouldn't have told the jury about it:
The officers' entry into the home was in fact constitutional under the community caretaking exception and it was not clearly established at the time of their entry that the community caretaking exception would not give them an immunity defense.
The court continued:
Here, the function being performed by Edwards, Jean, and Kaplan was a community caretaking one. When the officers arrived at the scene, they saw intoxicated guests who appeared to be underage entering and exiting a party freely through an open door. Jean saw a guest that looked underage leave the house, throw up twice outside, and then reenter the apartment. The party was loud enough to be heard from the street. In their efforts to have the music turned down and make sure any underage guests were safe, they were aiding people who were potentially in distress, preventing hazards from materializing, and protecting community safety. ...
The officers acted reasonably. The officers had an implicit invitation to go up on the porch and knock on the apartment's door. See Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1, 8 (2013). The officers did not enter the home until announcing themselves and failing to get the guests' attention. They needed to get the attention of the homeowner because he is the person ultimately responsible for the impact of the party on the neighborhood. Because they were responding to a 911 call reporting a noise complaint, the officers knew that people in the neighborhood were disturbed by the party. In addition, underage drinkers pose a safety risk. This is especially true on a holiday known for drinking and one that requires extra police officers to be deployed throughout the city.
Given the open front door, the people coming in and out of that open door at will, the evident lack of supervision by the owner of who entered, and the owner's failure to respond, any expectation of privacy was greatly diminished. It was objectively reasonable for an officer to have on-going concerns about noise complaints and underage drinking and determine that they might be easily resolved by entering through an open door (the same one the guests were coming and going through freely) to bring these complaints to the owner's attention.