Massachusetts SJC holds that police have no right to forcefully enter a home to execute an arrest warrant without concrete evidence that the arrestee is home

Police officers often obtain evidence during the execution of an arrest warrant, but a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney can ask the court to exclude this evidence if it was obtained unlawfully or in violation of the defendant’s rights. That’s because the manner and circumstances in which an officer could forcefully enter a home to make the arrest are heavily regulated by the courts. The state’s high court in Commonwealth v. Gentile limited police power even further when it held that police officers did not have authority to forcefully enter a home to execute an arrest warrant if they had no concrete evidence that the arrestee was home at the time.

In the matter of Commonwealth v. Gentile, police officers forcefully entered the residence of Gentile in an effort to execute two outstanding arrest warrants against him. When the officers first approached the residence, Gentile was nowhere in sight, and a lady with her daughter answered the door. When asked whether defendant was at home, the lady replied that he was not.

The officer at the door alleged that the lady looked at the bedroom at the end of the house and appeared nervous when she was asked about Gentile. Based on these observations, the officer forcefully entered the residence and search the bedroom at the back of the house for Gentile. Gentile was found in the bedroom, near an antique musket that was left in plain view. The officers arrested Gentile and subsequently discovered several other firearms in the bedroom.

After Gentile was transported to the station, the officers read Gentile his Miranda rights, and Gentile agreed to waive his right to remain silent. Gentile then proceeded to inform the officers about how he came to possess the weapons, which were stolen by a third party. Gentile also agreed to the officers’ request to search his property for a stolen sword and BB gun. The officers subsequently returned to Gentile’s house, where the sword and BB gun were discovered and confiscated.

Gentile was charged with receiving stolen weapons. Gentile’s attorney asked the court to exclude any evidence obtained through Gentile’s consent to allow the officers to search his residence. He argued that the officers violated Gentile’s constitutional right to privacy by entering his house. The motion was denied, however, and Gentile was convicted by a jury for receiving the stolen sword and BB gun.

On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court held that police officers must have more than a hunch that the arrestee is in his home before the officers could forcefully enter the home to execute an arrest warrant. According to the court, police officers need to have a “reasonable belief” based on specific articulable facts and observations that the defendant was actually present. In this particular case, the court found the officers acted on a pure hunch when they forcefully entered the premises. The home invasion was therefore unlawful.

Gentile also successfully argued that since his arrest was a result of an unlawful privacy invasion, any consent he subsequently gave to police to search his home for more weapons was invalid. Therefore, the sword and BB gun discovered by police by Gentile’s consent after his arrest were inadmissible. And since the prosecutor could not prove Gentile’s guilt without evidence of the discovered weapons, the court ordered that all charges be dismissed.

This case marks a substantial victory for defendants and the criminal defense bar across the state. The SJC’s decision protected the Article 14 and Fourth Amendment rights of defendants facing arrest warrants by restricting police conduct in searches and arrests. Massachusetts police officers must now satisfy a high standard of objective belief to validate their forceful entry and search of any individual’s residence.

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