©2011 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com) Roberts v. Spielman 11th Cir. Decided June 14, 2011
Suicide threat calls are some of the most difficult calls for law enforcement officers due to the fact that in most states, it is not a crime to commit suicide. As such, officers are often faced with the decisions regarding warrantless entry into homes and use of force when technically no crime has been committed. Additionally, some states, such as Georgia, have statutes that limit the authority of police to involuntarily commit a person to a mental health facility for a mental evaluation unless the person has committed criminal conduct or some other specific court or physicians order exists.
Recently, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Roberts v. Spielman [i] which illustrates an officer’s authority to make warrantless entry to a residence when responding to a possible suicide call. The incident in this case occurred in Peach County, Georgia. The facts of Roberts, taken directly from the case are as follows:
On March 19, 2009, Deputy Spielman responded to a call about a possible suicide attempt at Roberts’s home. Upon arriving at the home, Deputy Spielman spoke with Roberts’s former sister-in-law, Tracey Huckabee, who said that she had been trying to make contact with Roberts for an hour. Huckabee stated that Roberts lived alone and had a history of suicide attempts. Huckabee told Deputy Spielman that she feared that Roberts had committed suicide, because Roberts’s truck was parked in the driveway and Huckabee could hear both televisions on inside the residence. Huckabee also told Deputy Spielman that Roberts was on medication for bipolar disorder.
Deputy Spielman knocked several times on the front door and the bedroom window. When there was no response, he went to the kitchen door and knocked again more loudly. He then walked to the back of the home and onto the back deck, where he knocked on the back door several times. From the back door, Deputy Spielman heard the television on inside the home. Deputy Spielman opened the back door by pushing it open a few inches, allowing him to look inside the home. Roberts, who had been ignoring the knocking, believing it to be Huckabee, heard the back door opening and saw Deputy Spielman’s hair through the slightly open door. She asked him to identify himself and he stated he was with the Sheriff’s office. Roberts approached Deputy Spielman, who was still on the back deck, and told him to “get the f*** out of here” in a forcible way. Roberts agrees this is what she clearly and forcibly said to Deputy Spielman. Roberts also does not dispute that she was verbally abusive to Deputy Spielman, repeatedly calling Deputy Spielman “boy” and yelling “get the f— out of my house.” Deputy Spielman told Roberts to go outside and talk to Huckabee. Roberts responded that she did not want to talk to Huckabee, and that Deputy Spielman could not make her leave the house.
When Deputy Spielman told Roberts to calm down and stop calling him boy, Roberts yelled “Get the f— out of my house or I will-.”2 Deputy Spielman immediately grabbed Roberts’s right arm and escorted her out of the house. Roberts estimated that from the time Deputy Spielman saw her at the back door until he grabbed her arm about five minutes elapsed.
Deputy Spielman took Roberts across the back deck, into the garage, and made her sit down on the back steps. At this point, Huckabee also came to the back of the home. Deputy Spielman explained to Roberts that the reason for his presence was to perform a welfare check at her home. Roberts yelled profanities at Deputy Spielman and Huckabee. Eventually Deputy Spielman walked with Huckabee back around the house to the front driveway, leaving Roberts on the back steps. Roberts then walked back through the house to the front driveway, where she told Huckabee to “tear up the Constitution,” because Deputy Spielman “had proven it means nothing anymore.” Deputy Spielman shouted that he was “in charge,” and told Roberts to “shut up or be arrested.” Deputy Spielman told Huckabee that he could not take Roberts into custody for an evaluation because Roberts “did not verbally threaten her life in [his] presence.” Deputy Spielman then left Roberts’s home. [ii]
Roberts sued Deputy Spielman for violating her Constitutional rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Deputy Spielman filed a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion because it held that the deputy was acting outside the scope of his authority when he entered Robert’s home without a warrant in response to a possible suicide call. Deputy Spielman appealed the denial of his motion to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Eleventh Circuit first stated that
[G]overnment officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. [iii]
Thus, in order to receive qualified immunity, the deputy must first show that he was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority. The Eleventh Circuit also stated that to be acting within the scope of his discretionary authority, the deputy must show (1) that his actions were undertaken in the performance of his duties, and (2) were within the scope of his authority. [iv]
First, applying the above requirements to the facts of this case, the court of appeals stated that the deputy was acting in the performance of his duties as a Georgia peace officer when he opened Robert’s door to check on her welfare, spoke with her for about five minutes and escorted her outside. The court stated that the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (OCGA) in § 35-8-2(8)(A) lists “protection of life” as one of the duties of a peace officer. In this case, the actions of the deputy were all conducted in order to check Robert’s welfare after he received a report that she may have attempted suicide.
Second, the court of appeals also found that the deputy was acting within the scope of his authority when he remained on the property for a short time after he saw that she was alive and well. Robert’s argued that the deputy exceeded the scope of his authority when he remained on her property after observing that she was okay. However, the court stated
Deputy Spielman acted within his authority in remaining on the property and attempting to speak with and observe Roberts for a brief period of time to ensure that she had not attempted, nor was about to attempt, suicide. [v]
Now that the court of appeals determined that the deputy was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority in this incident, they next sought to determine if he was entitled to qualified immunity for his actions. In order to determine qualified immunity, the court must determine (1) whether the facts, resolving all disputed facts in favor of the plaintiff, establish that the deputy violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, and (2) if the right was clearly established such that a reasonable officer in the same situation would have known his conduct was unlawful. [vi] If the deputy violated the constitution and the right was clearly established, the deputy is not entitled to qualified immunity from the law suit.
The court then set out to determine whether or not the deputy violated the Constitution when he entered Robert’s home and briefly seized her without a warrant in response to a suicide attempt call. First, the court considered the long established rule that a seizure occurs any time an officer restrains a person’s liberty by a show of authority or physical force. [vii] Further, a seizure occurs when a reasonable person would not feel free to terminate his or her encounter with the police. [viii] Additionally, citing cases from the Fourth and Sixth Circuits, the court noted
When an officer stops an individual to ascertain that person’s mental state (rather than to investigate suspected criminal activity), the Fourth Amendment requires the officer to have probable cause to believe the person is dangerous either to himself or to others. [ix]
The court also examined searches of private residences and noted that warrantless entries or searches of private residences are generally prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. [x] However the court also stated
This prohibition is not absolute, however. One exception to the warrant requirement “is that the police may enter private premises and conduct a search if ‘exigent circumstances’ mandate immediate action. [E]mergency situations involving endangerment to life fall squarely within the exigent circumstances exception. [xi]
The court then noted that in order for the “exigent circumstance” exception to the warrant requirement be constitutionally reasonable, the officer must have both exigent circumstance and probable cause. [xii] Regarding “probable cause” in “protection of life” cases, the court stated
When officers respond to an emergency, the probable cause element may be satisfied where officers reasonably believe a person is in danger. The officer’s conduct is evaluated by reference to the circumstances then confronting the officer, including the need for a prompt assessment of sometimes ambiguous information concerning potentially serious consequences. In addition, the officer’s warrantless search must be strictly circumscribed by the exigencies which justify its initiation . . . [xiii] [internal citations and quotations omitted]
The court then set out to apply the above rules to the facts of Robert’s case. Roberts argued that once the deputy saw that she was okay, he was required to leave her property as she ordered him to do. The court then considered the information that was given to the deputy by Huckabee, Robert’s relative (she may have attempted suicide, she would not come to the door, the TV was on, she had a history of suicide attempts, and she was bi-polar) and the fact that when the deputy arrived, Roberts would not come to the door. They held that it was reasonable for the deputy to crack the door open to look for Roberts. Specifically, the court stated
Deputy Spielman could reasonably have believed that Roberts posed a danger to herself that justified his remaining inside the doorway of her home for about five minutes and then, for safety reasons, briefly removing her from the home while he tried to calm her down and determine her mental state.
We stress the limited scope of Deputy Spielman’s entry into the home and encounter with Roberts. Deputy Spielman opened the door and then stood in the doorway of Roberts’ home for about five minutes while he spoke with her. Deputy Spielman then escorted Roberts outside to the back steps of her garage, but only after she continued yelling and made her ambiguous “or I will-“statement that a reasonable officer could have interpreted as a threat or at least as further cause for concern about Roberts’s mental state. [xiv]
The court stressed the fact the deputy’s intrusion into the home and Robert’s detention were only as long as necessary for him to determine that the exigency had passed. At this point, he left Robert’s property.
The court then held that in light of the above, the deputy did not violate Robert’s Constitutional rights in this incident, and he was entitled to qualified immunity.
NOTE: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal advisor regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 11995 (11th Cir. Decided June 14, 2011)
[ii] Id. at 3-6
[iii] Id. at 6 (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S. Ct. 2727, 2738, 73 L. Ed. 2d 396 (1982))
[iv] Id. at 7 (citing Jordan v. Doe, 38 F.3d 1559, 1566 (11th Cir. 1994))
[v] Id. at 8
[vi] Id. at 10 (citing Grider v. City of Auburn, 618 F.3d 1240, 1254 & n.19 (11th Cir. 2010))
[vii] Id. at 11 (citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968))
[ix] Id. See, e.g., Cloaninger ex rel. Cloaninger v. McDevitt, 555 F.3d 324, 334 (4th Cir. 2009) (involving officer’s “welfare check” at residence after doctor’s 911 call reported possible suicide attempt); Monday v. Oullette, 118 F.3d 1099, 1102 (6th Cir. 1997) (involving officer dispatched to residence after mental health worker reported a suicide attempt).
[x] Id. at 12 (citing United States v. Holloway, 290 F.3d 1331, 1334 (11th Cir. 2002))
[xii] Id. at 12
[xiii] Id. at 12-13
[xiv] Id. at 14-15