Unlawful entry or police community caretaking?

The community caretaking doctrine requires the court to balance individual privacy interests and the need for the caretaking activity


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Perhaps in a nod to the Irish eyes of their neighbors in South Boston, on Saint Patrick’s Day in 2013 two Italian-Americans, the Castagna brothers (Christopher and Gavin), threw a big party in their apartment. So grand were their plans that they moved furniture to make way for the crowd and purchased a copious supply of beer (though the record is devoid of any indication of whether it was green beer).

Just before 6 p.m., someone called 9-1-1 to report a loud party at the intersection near the apartment of i Fratelli Castagna.

An hour-and-a-half later, several very busy Boston police officers responded to the call. As they approached the intersection, the raucous noise guided them to the Castagna apartment, where a “very young-looking man” walked out, circled unsteadily around on the sidewalk and fell over, vomiting twice. What a clue the officers had reached their destination.

When Christopher Castagna opened the door, the Boston PD officer spotted some marijuana. (Photo/Pixabay)
When Christopher Castagna opened the door, the Boston PD officer spotted some marijuana. (Photo/Pixabay)

The officers approached the open door, knocked and yelled “Hello!” and “Boston Police!” No one paid them any mind.

Seeing others who appeared to be underage and drinking, the officers entered, intending to merely invite the tenants to control the party. Despite seeing underage drinkers, the officers had no intention of arresting anyone. Indeed, some of the officers weren’t even carrying handcuffs. They wanted to lighten their load after walking a long parade route.

The officers walked around the apartment, asking for the tenants. Someone turned off the music and the apartment fell silent. None of the revelers answered the officers’ questions about the apartment, at least for a brief interval. One officer approached a closed door and knocked.

Christopher Castagna opened the door; the officer said “Boston Police” as he spotted some marijuana. Castagna saw the officer had spied the marijuana. He shoved the officer back and slammed the door on the officer’s foot. The officer, aided by others, pushed the door open. Castagna shoved the officer again. After a few moments, both brothers were arrested.

The brothers sued, claiming unlawful entry. Though the door was open, no one bid the officers enter after they knocked and announced themselves. The officers had no warrant. The Castagna brothers claimed everyone at the party was, to their knowledge, of legal drinking age. After an eight-day jury trial, the jury decided in favor of the officers on all counts. The Castagnas appealed.

The officers argued their entry was justified by both the emergency aid doctrine and the community caretaking doctrine. The court held the officers’ entry was lawful, noting the officers “saw intoxicated guests who appeared to be underage entering and exiting a party freely through an open door” and they watched a young male “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.” Moreover, “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.”

The community caretaking doctrine requires the court to balance individual privacy interests and the need for the caretaking activity. The court had little difficulty, particularly in light of the officers’ testimony that they only intended to quell the noise and check on the welfare of the party guests, in holding that the officers were within the scope of the community caretaking doctrine.

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