On January 23, 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Ryburn et al. v. Huff, et al. [i] which reiterated several rules that relate to the Constitutional reasonableness of an officer’s warrantless entry into a private residence. The facts of Ryburn are as follows:
[Officers] Ryburn and Zepeda, along with two other officers from the Burbank Police Department, responded to a call from Bellarmine-Jefferson High School in Burbank, California. When the officers arrived at the school, the principal informed them that a student, Vincent Huff, was rumored to have written a letter threatening to “shoot up” the school. The principal reported that many parents, after hearing the rumor, had decided to keep their children at home. The principal expressed concern for the safety of her students and requested that the officers investigate the threat.
In the course of conducting interviews with the principal and two of Vincent’s classmates, the officers learned that Vincent had been absent from school for two days and that he was frequently subjected to bullying. The officers additionally learned that one of Vincent’s classmates believed that Vincent was capable of carrying out the alleged threat. The officers found Vincent’s absences from school and his history of being subjected to bullying as cause for concern. The officers had received training on targeted school violence and were aware that these characteristics are common among perpetrators of school shootings.
The officers decided to continue the investigation by interviewing Vincent. When the officers arrived at Vincent’s house, Officer Zepeda knocked on the door and announced several times that the officers were with the Burbank Police Department. No one answered the door or otherwise responded to Officer Zepeda’s knocks. Sergeant Ryburn then called the home telephone. The officers could hear the phone ringing inside the house, but no one answered.
Sergeant Ryburn next tried calling the cell phone of Vincent’s mother, Mrs. Huff. When Mrs. Huff answered the phone, Sergeant Ryburn identified himself and inquired about her location. Mrs. Huff informed Sergeant Ryburn that she was inside the house. Sergeant Ryburn then inquired about Vincent’s location, and Mrs. Huff informed him that Vincent was inside with her. Sergeant Ryburn told Mrs. Huff that he and the other officers were outside and requested to speak with her, but Mrs. Huff hung up the phone.
One or two minutes later, Mrs. Huff and Vincent walked out of the house and stood on the front steps. Officer Zepeda advised Vincent that he and the other officers were there to discuss the threats. Vincent, apparently aware of the rumor that was circulating at his school, responded, “I can’t believe you’re here for that.” Sergeant Ryburn asked Mrs. Huff if they could continue the discussion inside the house, but she refused. Ibid. In Sergeant Ryburn’s experience as a juvenile bureau sergeant, it was “extremely unusual” for a parent to decline an officer’s request to interview a juvenile inside. Sergeant Ryburn also found it odd that Mrs. Huff never asked the officers the reason for their visit.
After Mrs. Huff declined Sergeant Ryburn’s request to continue the discussion inside, Sergeant Ryburn asked her if there were any guns in the house. Mrs. Huff responded by “immediately turn[ing] around and r[unning] into the house.” Sergeant Ryburn, who was “scared because [he] didn’t know what was in that house” and had “seen too many officers killed,” entered the house behind her. Vincent entered the house behind Sergeant Ryburn, and Officer Zepeda entered after Vincent. Officer Zepeda was concerned about “officer safety” and did not want Sergeant Ryburn to enter the house alone. The two remaining officers, who had been standing out of earshot while Sergeant Ryburn and Officer Zepeda talked to Vincent and Mrs. Huff, entered the house last, on the assumption that Mrs. Huff had given Sergeant Ryburn and Officer Zepeda permission to enter.
Upon entering the house, the officers remained in the living room with Mrs. Huff and Vincent. Eventually, Vincent’s father entered the room and challenged the officers’ authority to be there. The officers remained inside the house for a total of 5 to 10 minutes. During that time, the officers talked to Mr. Huff and Vincent. They did not conduct any search of Mr. Huff, Mrs. Huff, or Vincent, or any of their property. The officers ultimately concluded that the rumor about Vincent was false, and they reported their conclusion to the school. [ii] [internal citations omitted]
The Huff’s filed suit in federal court against the four officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating their rights under the Fourth Amendment by entering their home without a warrant. After a two day bench trial, the District Court entered a judgment in favor of the officers by granting them qualified immunity. In its order, the District Court resolved factual disputes in favor of the officers. Specifically, the Court concluded that, when the officer asked Mrs. Huff about the presence of a gun in the house, she failed to answer and turned and ran into the house. The Court then held that, in light of the information that the police received from the school and Mrs. Huff’s odd behavior, a reasonable officer could have concluded that “there could be weapons inside the house, and that family members or the officers themselves were in danger.” [iii] The District Court also considered that the officers were facing a rapidly evolving incident.
The Huffs appealed the District Court’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A divided panel of the Ninth Circuit held that the two officers that entered the house last (the ones that believed they had consent) were entitled to qualified immunity. However, they reversed the grant of qualified immunity for Officer’s Ryburn and Zepeda holding that “any belief that the officers or other family members were in serious, imminent harm would have been objectively unreasonable” since Mrs. Huff “merely asserted her right to end her conversation with the officers and returned to her home.” [iv]
The officers petitioned the Supreme Court for a Writ of Certiorari and they agreed to hear the case.
The Supreme Court, in examining their precedent regarding exigent circumstances for warrantless entry into residences, stated:
…officers may enter a residence without a warrant when they have “an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant is . . . imminently threatened with [serious injury].” We explained that “`[t]he need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury is justification for what would be otherwise illegal absent an exigency or emergency.'” Id., at 403 (quoting Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U. S. 385, 392 (1978)). In addition, in Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U. S. 103, 118 (2006), the Court stated that “it would be silly to suggest that the police would commit a tort by entering [a residence] . . . to determine whether violence . . . is about to (or soon will) occur.” [v]
After examining Brigham City and Randolph, the Supreme Court stated:
A reasonable police officer could read these decisions to mean that the Fourth Amendment permits an officer to enter a residence if the officer has a reasonable basis for concluding that there is an imminent threat of violence. [vi]
The Supreme Court then considered the specific facts that the District Court relied upon in holding that the officer’s acted reasonably in entering the Huff’s residence. Particularly, the court found relevant the following: Vincent’s alleged threat to shoot up the school, the fact that Vincent was a victim of bullying, the fact that he had been absent from school for two days, the fact that the Huffs did not answer the door or home phone, the fact that Mrs. Huff hung up her cell phone on the officers, the fact that Mrs. Huff did not inquire as to why the officers were at her home or seem concerned that they were investigating her son, the fact that Mrs Huff refused to tell the officers if guns were in the home and the fact that she ran back into the house while being questioned. Based upon these facts, the and their precedent on this subject, the Supreme Court held:
[R]easonable officers …could have come to the conclusion that there was an imminent threat to their safety and to the safety of others. The Ninth Circuit’s contrary conclusion was flawed for numerous reasons. [vii]
The Supreme Court then described the various flaws in the Ninth Circuit’s holding. First, they noted that the Ninth Circuit did not fully accept the factual finding of the District Court, as they were required to do by the rules of appellate procedure. Particularly, the Ninth Circuit found that Mrs. Huff “returned to her home” after telling officers she was going to get her husband. In contrast, the District Court found that Mrs. Huff turned and ran into her home after being questioned by the police.
The second flaw in the Ninth Circuit’s holding was the fact that they seemed to have taken the view that conduct that is lawful cannot be regarded as a matter of concern to the police. To this, the Supreme Court stated:
It should go without saying, however, that there are many circumstances in which lawful conduct may portend imminent violence. [viii]
The third flaw in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion noted by the Supreme Court was the fact that they appeared to have analyzed each relevant fact in isolation rather than looking at the totality of the circumstances. The Supreme Court stated
[I]t is a matter of common sense that a combination of events each of which is mundane when viewed in isolation may paint an alarming picture. [ix]
The fourth and final flaw of the Ninth Circuit’s decision is worth quoting in its entirety. The Supreme Court stated:
Fourth, the panel majority did not heed the District Court’s wise admonition that judges should be cautious about second-guessing a police officer’s assessment, made on the scene, of the danger presented by a particular situation. With the benefit of hindsight and calm deliberation, the panel majority concluded that it was unreasonable for petitioners to fear that violence was imminent. But we have instructed that reasonableness “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight” and that “[t]he calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments–in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U. S. 386, 396-397 (1989). Judged from the proper perspective of a reasonable officer forced to make a split-second decision in response to a rapidly unfolding chain of events that culminated with Mrs. Huff turning and running into the house after refusing to answer a question about guns, petitioners’ belief that entry was necessary to avoid injury to themselves or others was imminently reasonable. [x]
In conclusion, the Supreme Court held that reasonable officers in the situation faced Officer’s Ryburn and Zepeda could have concluded that the Fourth Amendment allowed them to enter the Huff’s residence without a warrant because there was a reasonable basis for them to believe that violence was imminent. As such, they reversed the decision of the Ninth Circuit.
NOTE: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] 2012 U.S. LEXIS 910, 565 U.S. ____ (2012)
[ii] Id. at 1-4
[iii] Id. at 5 [internal citations omitted]
[iv] Id. at 6 [internal citations omitted]
[v] Id. at 7-8
[vi] Id. at 8
[vii] Id. at 10
[viii] Id. at 12
[x] Id. at 12-13