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By Lance J. Rogers
Dec. 31 — Officers who entered a house without a warrant under the “emergency aid exception” to the Fourth Amendment exceeded their authority when they seized and tested the contents of a tequila bottle after they had already satisfied themselves that the occupant wasn't in distress, a divided Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Dec. 30.
The ruling means that David J. Kaeppeler will get a new trial on charges that he sexually assaulted a couple after serving them liquor that was laced with a “date-rape” drug.
In an opinion by Justice Geraldine S. Hines, the court upheld the initial warrantless entry of Kaeppeler's home, saying it was justified because the police had a legitimate concern about Kaeppler's health and safety.
According to the court, the police had received reliable information from a local hospital that two people who had been with Kaeppeler at his home the previous evening had become seriously ill after the group drank tequila. The police also learned from a concerned coworker that Kaeppeler had not appeared at work that day.
That emergency, however, dissipated once the police arrived at Kaeppeler's home, spoke with him, and persuaded him to get in an ambulance so he could get “checked out” at the hospital, the court said.
“From that point on, the police had no further cause for concern about the defendant's well-being and no public safety justification to remain in his home,” the court said.
“We recognize that the role of a police officer responding to an emergency is not necessarily limited to rendering aid to an injured person,” the court said. Police who enter a residence under the emergency exception are also expected to restore order and prevent injury, it said.
But that's not what happened here, it continued. Nobody from the hospital asked the police to seize the tequila for testing and the police, at best, only had a hunch that the bottles might contain a drug that made the couple ill.
It also pointed out that the police kept the bottles for approximately four months before sending them to a laboratory for analysis.
There clearly was no ongoing threat to public safety, the court said.
In dissent, Justice Robert J. Cordy argued that the seizure of the tequila bottles was objectively reasonable because the emergency was ongoing, both for the defendant and the patients.
“I agree with the motion judge's findings and conclusion that there were sufficient grounds to believe that the bottles, from which all three ill individuals had been drinking the night before, were relevant in addressing what objectively appeared to be a life-threatening emergency,” Cordy wrote.
The Cape and Islands District Attorney's Office, Barnstable, Mass., represented the state. Kaeppeler was represented by Robert L. Sheketoff, Boston.
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