EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Friday, May 2, 2008

It's In the Bag: Massachusetts Court Finds Emergency Exception Applied To Police Search Of Handbag

The recent Court of Appeals of Massachusetts opinion in Commonwealth v. McCarthy, 2008 WL 1810291 (Mass.App.Ct. 2008), contains what I feel is a correct application of the "emergency exception" to the warrant requirement.  The facts of McCarthy were as follows:  In May, 2006, Officer McGinnis was dispatched to the “Something Different” restaurant on a report of an unconscious woman. Upon arrival, he observed Linda M. McCarthy “thrashing” about on the floor. McCarthy was slurring her words and unable to communicate effectively, but McGinnis was able to discern that the she wanted help getting up and into a chair. McGinnis called for EMTs, who arrived and were able to move McCarthy to a sitting position in a chair. McCarthy's condition slightly improved, and the EMTs told McGinnis that they believed that McCarthy was suffering from a drug overdose.  They then inquired whether McGinnis knew what McCarthy had taken, and McGinnis responded that he didn't know.

McGinnis then observed an open woman's handbag several feet from McCarthy and searched the handbag for drugs, the identity of which, if known, could assist the EMTs in treating McCarthy.  Inside the handbag, he found two marijuana cigarettes and two amber colored vials that appeared to hold cocaine.  McGinnis showed the drugs to the EMTs and seized the bag and its contents. McCarthy was then transported to the hospital by the EMTs.  After the defendant was transported to the hospital, McGinnis had the vials “field tested,” and the test confirmed that the powder was in fact cocaine.

McCarthy was thereafter charged based upon her drug possession and moved to suppress the drugs obtained from the handbag on the ground that they were obtained without a warrant.  The trial judge granted her motion, and the Commonwealth took an interlocutory appeal to the Court of Appeals of Massachusetts.

The Court noted that it was undisputed that the search of McCarthy's handbag was undertaken without probable cause, which under normal circumstances would have been considered an invalid warrantless search and seizure.  It continued, however, that there is an "emergency exception" to the warrant requirement under which a warrant is not required when the purpose of a police search/seizure is not to gather evidence of criminal activity but rather to respond to an immediate need for assistance for the protection of life or property because of an emergency.  The Court then noted that “[f]or the [emergency] exception to apply, the burden of proof is on the Commonwealth to show that the warrantless entry falls within the exception and that there were reasonable grounds for the ... police to believe (an objective standard) that an emergency existed." 

The Court found that the first requirement was fulfilled because the purpose of the search was to assist the EMTs in treating McCarthy and "not to gather evidence of criminal activity."  With regard to the second requirement, the Court found that there were "objectively reasonable grounds for McGinnis to believe that an emergency existed."  It found so because "[i]n such medical emergencies, time is of the essence, requiring swift action."  Specifically, there was no indication from the EMTs that McCarthy "was no longer in imminent and substantial danger. Despite the fact that [McCarthy] had slightly improved, at least to the point where the EMTs were able to place her in a chair, there still existed a real emergency that required immediate assistance for the protection of the [McCarthy's] life. In fact, the EMTs ultimately concluded that the situation was serious enough to warrant sending [McCarthy], by emergency transport, to the hospital for treatment."   



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