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Mass. high court cites Ginsburg in setting limits on police powers to search, arrest

John Adams Courthouse, home to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
John Adams Courthouse, home to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.(Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File 2018)

Inspired by US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the state’s high court Friday positioned the right to privacy enshrined in the Massachusetts Constitution as a bulwark against some warrantless searches and arrests conducted when police cite a public safety emergency.

The Supreme Judicial Court barred Essex County prosecutors from using physical evidence seized from the Lynn home of Jean Alexis that allegedly linked him to a violent home invasion in which a 6-month-old infant was hit with a silver-colored pistol.

Police and prosecutors had argued that, when police went to Alexis’s home without a warrant and saw him there, because of the violent nature of the alleged crime and the possibility he might destroy evidence, it was an emergency — and they could immediately enter the home and arrest him.

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The SJC, in a unanimous opinion, said Massachusetts would not follow the legal conclusions of the majority in an 8-1 US Supreme Court decision that said Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable seizures must give way when police face “exigent circumstances.”

Instead, the SJC said it would be guided by its long-held belief that Article 14 of the Massachusetts Constitution is a more powerful protector of civil liberties than the US Constitution and would embrace Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion in the 2011 ruling, King v. Kentucky.

“Balancing the interests of law enforcement with the rights of people to be protected from warrantless searches in the home, we conclude that art. 14 provides greater protection than the Fourth Amendment in these circumstances and that under art. 14 the police cannot avail themselves of the exigency exception to the warrant requirement when it was foreseeable that their actions would create the exigency,” Justice Elspeth B. Cypher wrote.

The SJC credited Lynn police with the quality of their investigation as they pursued three men who had burst into a Lynn home around 7 a.m. on June 10, 2016, tied the father up, and then terrorized a mother and her two children in the bedroom.

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“Before leaving the house, the man with the silver handgun struck [the victim’s] six month old baby in the face with the gun,’’ the SJC wrote.

The victim allegedly recognized Alexis, a former high school classmate, after reviewing hundreds of booking photos. The victim declared himself “100 percent certain” Alexis was the attacker with the silver gun who had hit the infant.

The SJC found what happened next to be troubling. A detective sought an arrest warrant for Alexis, did not seek the warrant on an emergency basis as he could have, and then left at the end of his shift.

The next day, the detective alerted the department’s warrant task force, and four plainclothes officers in unmarked cars went to Alexis’s home, still without an arrest warrant, to question him. Alexis allegedly tried to escape out a rear window but was arrested after police entered the home without a warrant.

Police then spotted jewelry allegedly taken from the victim’s home on top of a refrigerator in Alexis’s room. At that point, police obtained a search warrant and seized clothing, a stun gun, the jewelry, a wallet, and ID cards with Alexis’s name on it.

The SJC said police had other options that would have made the arrest of Alexis constitutionally acceptable.

“There is no question that the police had developed probable cause to arrest the defendant prior to arriving at his home,’’ Cypher wrote. “There is also no question that it is generally permissible for police to approach a person’s home and knock on the door.”

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However, police “had the opportunity to obtain an arrest warrant the morning of the arrest. Forgoing multiple opportunities to procure an arrest warrant further highlights the unreasonableness of the arrest,” Cypher wrote. “Considering all of the circumstances, the arrest of the defendant in his dwelling without a warrant was unreasonable.”

The SJC agreed with a lower court judge and suppressed the evidence seized during Alexis’s arrest.


John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.