E-Newsletter Edition: July 11, 2007
Always note that state law may be more restrictive on police power than the U.S. Constitution.
When responding to an “Open House Party” you observe the house to be secure with no implied consent indications of people entering or exiting freely. When you knock on the door, the person who answers appears to be over 21 but the occupants inside who are consuming beer appear under 21 or under 18 y.o.a. The person who answers the door denies consent to enter. Can you enter?
Probably not based only on facts contained in the question. The three constitutionally, approved methods for entering private premises are (1) consent, (2) a warrant, and (3) exigent circumstances. Based on the facts of the question, we do not have a warrant and we do not have consent. This leaves “exigent circumstances” which is discussed below.
In Minnesota v. Olson, the United States Supreme Court identified several situations that could be considered exigent circumstances that would justify a warrantless entry into a home. The court stated that a warrantless intrusion may be justified in the following situations: (1) hot pursuit of a fleeing felon; (2) imminent destruction of evidence; (3) the need to prevent the suspect’s escape; and (4) the risk of danger to the police or people inside or outside the home.1 Other factors to consider are that there must be probable cause to believe the person sought committed the crime at issue, that the crime at issue is a serious (“grave”) one, and the likelihood that the suspect is armed.2 While all factors listed need not be present, the entry must be reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances.
In 2006, the United States Supreme Court decided Brigham City v. Stuart, in which officers were dispatched to a loud party.3 When they arrived, they heard shouting and noise from an altercation coming from the house in question. They proceeded down the driveway to investigate and observed two juveniles drinking beer in the backyard. The officers entered the backyard, and they observed through a screen door, several adults attempting to restrain a juvenile in the kitchen of the home. The juvenile broke free and the officers observed him punch an adult in the face. This caused the adult to bleed. The adults again grabbed the juvenile and struggled to restrain him. At this time, the officers announced their presence and entered the kitchen without consent or a warrant. They arrested several of the party goers for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, disorderly conduct and other related offenses. The Court held that the officers had an objectively reasonable basis for believing both that the injured adult in the kitchen may need help and that the violence in the kitchen was just beginning. As such, the officer’s entry was reasonable. Therefore, if officers respond to a “party call”, and observe a fight inside a residence, sufficient exigent circumstances would be present to enter and any evidence observed in plain view would be admissible against the party goers.
Another very important consideration is state law. In Welsh v. Wisconsin, the United States Supreme Court held that police could not enter a home without a warrant in order to prevent the loss of evidence of the “non-jailable traffic offense” (under state law) of driving under the influence.4 In contrast, under Illinois v. MacArthur, the United States Supreme Court stated that officers may enter a home without a warrant based on exigent circumstances when they have probable cause to believe that evidence of a “jailable” offense will be found in the home to be searched and exigent circumstances exist to justify the entry.5 Therefore, whether “underage drinking” is a “non-jailable” or “jailable” offense under state law is also a relevant issue to consider when determining if this offense can provide exigent circumstance in situations that meet the standards set forth in Minnesota v. Olson or Brigham City v. Stuart.
Lastly, in 1994, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided a case on point to this question. In Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Roland, the police responded to a call of a person who claimed to have been assaulted.6 The person was a nineteen year old male who was bleeding from a head injury. He claimed that he had been struck while at a party at Roland’s home. He also stated that there was underage drinking and marijuana in the home.
The police then proceeded to Roland’s home and knocked on the front door. Roland answered and he was an adult. Police also observed a number of people that were under 21 years old who were seated in close proximity to beer cans. Upon seeing the police, they attempted to hide the beer. The police then entered the residence without consent and without a warrant. Roland later admitted that he served the beer to the underage persons. He was charged and his motion to suppress based upon an unlawful entry into his home was denied. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that, given the minor nature of the offense that triggered the police entry, and the lack of exigent circumstances supporting that entry, the motion to suppress should have been granted. Pointing at the lack of exigent circumstances, the court stated that, even assuming that beer cans might have been removed prior to obtaining a warrant, this alone would not have supported warrantless entry to investigate the offense of underage drinking.
Minnesota v. Olson, 495 U.S. 91 (1990)
Brigham City v. Stuart, 126 S. Ct. 1943 (2006)
Welsh v. Wisconsin, 520 U.S. 385 (1997)
Illinois v. MacArthur, 531 U.S. 326 (2001)
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Roland, 535 Pa. 595 (1994)