Warrantless Entry of a Residence: Exigent Circumstances

When can police enter a home without a warrant? This question presents the rare convergence of a classic law school issue with real life. Officers are required to make quick decisions about whether they can enter a residence or whether they must obtain a warrant. As with many Fourth Amendment issues, the touchstone is reasonableness.

Do exigent circumstances make warrantless entry reasonable? A pair of recent cases — one from Tennessee and the other from the Sixth Circuit — help flesh out the contours of the exigent circumstances doctrine.

All these cases start from the same place: a warrantless entry is presumed to be unreasonable unless justified by a recognized exception:

The Supreme Court has recognized four circumstances in which “‘the exigencies of the situation’ make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that the warrantless search [of a person’s home or his person] is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” Exigent circumstances are present as a matter of law (1) to engage in hot pursuit of a fleeing felon; (2) to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence; (3) to prevent a suspect from escaping; and (4) to prevent imminent harm to police or third parties.[1]

In Brigham City v. Stuart, the United States Supreme Court found that exigent circumstances include the need to assist an injured occupant or prevent injury.[2] While there are hundreds of cases on this issue,[3] the two cases we focus on here illustrate the realistic decisions officers have to make and set out factors that we practitioners need when determining whether evidence should be admitted.

No Exigency in Investigating Accident

In State v. Gibson, the Court of Criminal Appeals disapproved a warrantless entry where an officer had observed an abandoned, crashed car nearby and found that the car was registered to the address in question.[4] The court set out principles that should help practitioners grapple with the meaning of exigency.

The facts of the case were not complicated and represent the type of issues officers confront all the time. At the scene of a one-car accident, the officer determined that the abandoned car was registered to an owner who lived approximately one half mile away. The officer stated that he was concerned that either the driver or a passenger might have been injured. When the officer went to the home, he found the door wide open, although there was no sign of forced entry. A neighbor who was supposed to be watching the house said the door had been closed earlier that evening.

The officer’s position was understandable. When asked why he did not consider obtaining a search warrant prior to going inside the residence, the officer testified,

Well, I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve obtained a search warrant, but at 3 o’clock in the morning it would take a significant amount of time to do something like that. If there were someone inside the house that was in distress, you know, that could have resulted in them having permanent injury or even death while I was attempting to get a search warrant.

The Court of Criminal Appeals held that “the officer’s entry into the Defendant’s home was supported by neither exigent circumstances nor as a part of the community caretaker function.”[5] Along the way, the court reviewed elements that can make warrantless entry reasonable:

  1. “One exigency obviating the requirement of a warrant is the need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury.”[6]
  2. The officers’ belief regarding the injury or threat must be objectively reasonable.
  3. Courts usually require officers’ direct observations of something in the residence or leading directly to it: cries for help, screams, loud noises, observation of a struggle or a blood trail outside, for example.[7]

Examining the record, the court found no evidence indicating that someone was inside who was in immediate distress or need of protection.

Additionally, the community caretaker function, as delineated by our Supreme Court in State v. Moats, is a form of consensual encounter that cannot justify warrantless entry into a house.[8]

Sixth Circuit: Officers Were Reasonable to Take Action in Dangerous Situation

On the other hand, the Sixth Circuit recently upheld a warrantless entry of a home based on exigent circumstances. In the opinion authored by Judge Sutton, the court applied a test of reasonableness and held that any officer would have found it reasonable to go inside to end an escalating set of risks. In United States v. Daws, deputies received a report that Mr. Daws had committed a home invasion and “warned the victim that if he called the police, Daws would ‘come back and kill him.’” Another caller reported that Daws had come to his house requesting a place to hide the money and shotgun. He feared Daws would come back and harm him after he declined. The officers also knew Daws and his prior crimes of violence.[9]

The following fact is so weird it requires quotation:

Upon reaching Daws’s house, the deputies saw one of his friends sitting outside on a tree stump. He was crying and, as they approached, the officers overheard him confess to someone on the phone that he and Daws had “done something bad” and were probably going to jail.

Deputies went into the house through an open door and discovered the shotgun.[10]

The entry was reasonable. Judge Sutton pointed out:

[P]olice must make practical, on-the-spot decisions. The gravity of the crime being investigated, the likelihood that the suspect is armed and the suspect’s willingness to use a weapon all factor into the reasonableness equation.

Very simply, the court found that the officers did not do anything wrong:

At this point, even the most reticent officer could be forgiven for taking matters into his own hands — and for halting an escalating set of risks.

All things considered, the situation presented a “potential for injury to the officers or others and the need for swift action.” The necessary delay associated with the alternative — getting a warrant — would have heightened the risk that Daws would act on the threats or make a run for it. The Fourth Amendment does not require police to ignore the real risk of a shootout or of a suspect’s escaping and making good on death threats.[11]

That is not to say that the Sixth Circuit has been quick to approve warrantless entry based on exigency. In fact the court has disapproved warrantless entry in several recent cases:

Where officers responded to a call about a fight, saw property damage but had no information that anyone was injured inside the residence, officers violated the occupant’s civil rights by entering without a warrant.[12] The court was similarly quick to point out that ongoing trespassing provides no exigency.[13] It was not sufficient that police thought that someone would alert occupants to the recent arrest of the co-occupant and allow them to destroy evidence where there was no specific information about someone making the alert.[14]

On the other hand, the Sixth Circuit has ruled that the need to protect the public from a loud stereo constitutes an exigent circumstance.[15] Similarly, the court held as a matter of first impression, officers’ warrantless entry into home in response to an emergency hang-up phone call was justified under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.[16] The belief that defendants would attempt to barricade an apartment and that there was risk to an infant child they knew to be inside was objectively reasonable.[17] Warrantless entry was also deemed reasonable where officers believed a dangerous fugitive was inside and that the occupants might be under duress and in danger.[18]

It is not easy to get lawyers to agree on what is “reasonable.” The Gibson and Daws opinions give us some good guideposts to use as practitioners when confronting this issue.

Notes

  1. United States v. Washington, 573 F.3d 279, 286-87 (6th Cir. 2009)(internal citations omitted).
  2. Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398 (2006).
  3. See Wayne R. LaFave, Search & Seizure: A Treatise on the Fourth Amendment, 5th Ed. v. 3, § 6.6(a).
  4. State v. Gibson, M2012-02363-CCA-R3CD, 2013 WL 5701650 (Tenn. Crim. App. Oct. 18, 2013).
  5. Id.
  6. Gibson, quoting Michigan v. Fisher, 558 U.S. 45, 49 (2009).
  7. Gibson, supra note 4.
  8. State v. Moats, 403 S.W.3d 170, 188 (Tenn. 2013)(although activation of blue lights ordinarily triggers a seizure, thereby implicating constitutional protections, if the activation of blue lights is not used as a show of authority directed at a particular person, the officer is acting within the community caretaking function and need not support his or her actions with reasonable suspicion or probable cause).
  9. United States v. Daws, 711 F.3d 725, 727 (6th Cir. 2013) cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 222, 187 L. Ed. 2d 166 (U.S. 2013).
  10. United States v. Daws,, 711 F.3d 725, 726-27 (6th Cir. 2013) cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 222, 187 L. Ed. 2d 166 (U.S. 2013).
  11. United States v. Daws,, 711 F.3d 725, 727 (6th Cir. 2013) cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 222, 187 L. Ed. 2d 166 (U.S. 2013)(internal citations omitted).
  12. Nelms v. Wellington Way Apartments LLC, 513 F. App’x 541 (6th Cir. 2013).
  13. United States v. Washington, 573 F.3d 279, 286-87 (6th Cir. 2009).
  14. United States v. Watson, 489 F. App’x 922, 925-26 (6th Cir. 2012).
  15. United States v. Rohrig, 98 F.3d 1506, 1515 (6th Cir.1996).
  16. Johnson v. City of Memphis, 617 F.3d 864 (6th Cir. 2010).
  17. United States v. Evans, 12-6175, 2013 WL 6620469 (6th Cir. Dec. 16, 2013).
  18. Ferguson v. Unicoi Cnty., 222 F. App’x 508 (6th Cir. 2007).

Wade Davies WADE DAVIES is the managing partner at Ritchie, Dillard, Davies & Johnson PC in Knoxville. He is a 1993 graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law. The majority of his practice has always been devoted to criminal defense. Davies is a member of the Tennessee Bar Journal Editorial Board.