Any law enforcement entry into private premises, including a residence, or an office or other commercial area that is not open to the public, is governed by the Fourth Amendment. Officers may make lawful entry only in four ways, and the consequences of unlawful entry can include suppression of evidence and civil liability. A recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court discusses entry to keep the peace, and how such entry falls within one of the four permissible means.
The Four Tickets to Admission
Because an entry infringes upon the reasonable expectation of privacy of the occupants of the entered premises, it fits the definition of a Fourth Amendment “search,” and must be justified by a warrant or recognized exception. (Payton v. New York) In addition to the two common varieties of warrants that may permit entry, there are three recognized exceptions, making a total of four ways to justify entering private premises:
(1) Warrant—Officers may enter in obedience to a search warrant for the particular premises, or to serve an arrest warrant for someone who is reasonably believed to reside there at a time when the person is reasonably believed to be inside. (Payton v. New York)
(2) Consent—A person who reasonably appears to have authority to give consent can permit entry, provided no other adult resident who is present objects. (Georgia v. Randolph)
(3) Probation or Parole—If a resident is known to be on probation or parole with a condition that his or her residence be subject to warrantless entry and search, an entry in accord with such a provision is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. (Griffin v. Wisconsin)
(4) Exigency—When immediate entry is necessary in order to neutralize exigent circumstances, entry may be made. Several categories of exigent circumstances have been identified by the Supreme Court:
• Rescuing someone from imminent harm. (Mincey v. Arizona—undercover officer shot inside.)
• Preventing substantial property damage. (Michigan v. Tyler—house on fire.)
• Forestalling the imminent destruction of evidence. (Ker v. California—destructible narcotics.)
• Fresh pursuit of a dangerous offender. (Warden v. Hayden—pursuit of fleeing armed robber into house.)
• Preventing escape of a person police attempted to detain or arrest while in a public place. (U.S. v. Santana—drug suspect ran back inside her home when officers tried to detain and arrest her at the open doorway.)
Some state and federal courts also recognize an exception for “public safety” (explosives or snipers inside, for example) and some for “community caretaking” (occupants may be sick or injured and need medical care).
The Stuart Case
A 2006 decision of the Supreme Court confirms that a fight in progress is a sufficient exigency under the first category to allow warrantless entry.
On a July night in Brigham City, Utah, police responded to a call about a loud party at a home. When they arrived, they heard shouting from inside the house, and they saw two juveniles drinking beer in the backyard. Through windows and the screen door, officers saw a fight in progress in the kitchen, where several adults were trying to restrain a violent juvenile. The juvenile swung his fist and struck one adult in the face. The victim could be seen spitting blood into the sink.
The officers opened the screen door and announced their presence, but no one seemed to notice. Officers then went into the kitchen and restored the peace, arresting several individuals on various misdemeanor charges.
The defendants successfully moved to suppress all observations and evidence resulting from the warrantless entry into the home. The Utah trial court, the appellate court, and the state supreme court all agreed that the entry violated the Fourth Amendment, for two reasons. First, the “emergency aid doctrine” was ruled inapplicable because the officers’ subjective motivation for the entry was believed to be for law enforcement, rather than aiding the victim. Second, the state courts thought a fistfight was not threatening enough to constitute an exigency. Before the U.S. Supreme Court, the defendants also argued that officers failed to comply with the knock-and-announce rule before entering.
The Supreme Court rejected all three of these grounds for suppression of evidence. First, the court pointed out that in a series of cases it has been held that a police officer’s subjective motivations do not invalidate an action that can be objectively justified on any ground. (Scott v. U.S.; Bond v. U.S.; Whren v. U.S.; Arkansas v. Sullivan; Maryland v. Macon; and Graham v. Connor.) As for the holding of the Utah Supreme Court that the officers’ subjective motivation controls, the U.S. Supreme Court said the following:
“Our cases have repeatedly rejected this approach. An action is ‘reasonable’ under the Fourth Amendment, regardless of the individual officer’s state of mind, ‘as long as the circumstances, viewed objectively, justify the action.’ The officer’s subjective motivation is irrelevant. It therefore does not matter here—even if their subjective motives could be so neatly unraveled—whether the officers entered the kitchen to arrest respondents and gather evidence against them or to assist the injured and prevent further violence.”
Second, looking to the nature of the circumstances, the Supreme Court held that breaking up a fight and preventing further injury is an exigent reason for immediate entry. Disagreeing with the state courts’ contention that only life-threatening injuries, or injuries that resulted in unconsciousness of the victim, could satisfy the exigency exception, the Supreme Court said this:
“This contention, too, is misplaced....Here, the officers were confronted with ongoing violence occurring within the home....In these circumstances, the officers had an objectively reasonable basis for believing both that the injured adult might need help and that the violence in the kitchen was just beginning. Nothing in the Fourth Amendment required them to wait until another blow rendered someone ‘unconscious’ or ‘semi-conscious’ or worse before entering. The role of a peace officer includes preventing violence and restoring order, not simply rendering first aid to casualties; an officer is not like a boxing (or hockey) referee, poised to stop a bout only if it becomes too one-sided.”
The court also disagreed with the defendants’ contention that knock-notice was violated. Even though there was no knock, it would have been useless to attempt to get the residents’ attention this way amid all the fighting and yelling, or to wait for the disturbance to subside before entering:
“The officer’s announcement of his presence was at least equivalent to a knock on the screen door....Under these circumstances, there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment’s knock-and-announce rule. Furthermore, once the announcement was made, the officers were free to enter; it would serve no purpose to require them to stand dumbly at the door awaiting a response while those within brawled on, oblivious to their presence.”
The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Utah courts with orders to reverse the Fourth Amendment exclusionary ruling.
This case establishes that warrantless, no-knock entries can sometimes be justified under the Fourth Amendment by even the mild exigency of a simple assault. This is significant because many instances of domestic abuse and other serious crimes may begin as pushing-and-shoving matches that quickly escalate into more violent confrontations.
Devallis Rutledge, a former police officer and veteran prosecutor, is Special Counsel to the Los Angeles County District Attorney.