Warrantless searches of private residences are presumptively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. However, the United States Supreme Court has established certain exceptions to the warrant requirement. On February 15, 2013, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Yengel [i], which serves as an excellent review of the exigent circumstance exception to the warrant requirement. The facts of Yengel, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
In the late afternoon of December 31, 2011, Sergeant Brian Staton responded to a call regarding a domestic assault at the home of Joseph Robert Yengel, Jr. (“Yengel”). The 911 dispatcher informed Sergeant Staton that a domestic dispute had erupted between Yengel and his wife. Sergeant Staton also learned that Mrs. Yengel had vacated the residence, and Yengel was potentially armed and threatening to shoot law enforcement personnel.
At around 4:00 p.m., Officer J.M. Slodysko was the first to arrive on the scene. The Yengels’ two-story home featured a walk-up front porch and was located in a dense residential neighborhood, with very little space separating adjacent homes. Upon his arrival, Officer Slodysko observed that Yengel was “extremely upset.” Officer Slodysko was, however, able to calm Yengel, and to persuade him to come out of the residence onto the front porch, unarmed. Shortly thereafter, when Sergeant Staton arrived on the scene, Yengel was seated on the top step of the front porch, “agitated and emotional,” but unarmed. The officer’s then further calmed Yengel, arrested him, and removed him from the scene.
While still at the scene, Sergeant Staton then interviewed Mrs. Yengel and Yengel’s mother, Karol Yengel. During the interviews, Sergeant Staton learned Yengel kept a large number of firearms and a “grenade” inside the house. Sergeant Staton also learned that Mrs. Yengel’s young son was sleeping in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Upon learning of the possible existence of a “grenade,” Sergeant Staton did not immediately call for the assistance of explosive experts, nor did he evacuate the area. Rather, Sergeant Staton asked Mrs. Yengel to show him where the alleged grenade was kept.
Mrs. Yengel directed Sergeant Staton into the upstairs master bedroom. There, she collected a variety of firearms which were strewn about the bedroom, placed the firearms on the bed, and requested that Sergeant Staton remove them. She said nothing further at that point about the existence or removal of the alleged grenade. Therefore, Sergeant Staton reiterated his request to locate the “grenade,” and Mrs. Yengel directed him to a nearby guest bedroom located at the end of the upstairs hallway, directly next to the bedroom in which her young son was sleeping. Mrs. Yengel led Sergeant Staton to a closet inside the guest bedroom that was locked with a combination keypad and thumbprint scanner. Mrs. Yengel informed Sergeant Staton that she did not know the combination to the lock and did not have access to the closet, but told him the “grenade” was kept inside. She then gave Sergeant Staton permission to “kick the door open” and told him to “do whatever you need to do to get in there.”
At this point, Sergeant Staton still did not notify explosive experts, did not evacuate the house or nearby homes, did not remove the sleeping child from the room located directly next to the room where the “grenade” was allegedly stored, and did not secure a search warrant. Instead, he simply pried open the closet with a screwdriver.
Once inside the closet, Sergeant Staton identified a variety of military equipment, including two gun safes, camouflage, and other weapons. Sergeant Staton also identified what he thought to be a military ammunition canister that he believed might contain the possible grenade.
After the warrantless entry into the closet, Sergeant Staton ordered an evacuation of the house, which at the time still included Mrs. Yengel’s young son, as well as an evacuation of the surrounding residences. At approximately 6:25 p.m., he also notified the James City County Fire Marshal’s office, and the Naval Weapons Station, requesting the assistance of its Explosive Ordnance Disposal (“EOD”) team. At around 7:00 p.m., Investigator Kendall Driscoll of the James City County Fire Marshal’s office arrived on the scene, and began gathering further information from Mrs. Yengel by telephone, as she had by then been removed from the scene. Mrs. Yengel informed Investigator Driscoll that she had seen her husband place a “grenade” — four inches by two inches, dark green in color, with a pin in the top — into the closet two years prior. Shortly thereafter, around 7:30 p.m., the EOD team arrived and searched the open closet. Once inside the closet, the EOD team found a backpack containing not a grenade, but a one pound container of smokeless shotgun powder and a partially assembled explosive device attached to a kitchen timer. Law enforcement had been on the scene approximately three and a half hours at this point. [ii]
Yengel was subsequently charged with various federal weapons and explosives violations. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence found during the warrantless search of his closet and the district court granted his motion. The government appealed the grant of the motion to suppress to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals arguing that the warrantless search of Yengel’s closet was justified under the exigent circumstance exception to the warrant requirement.
The issue before the court in this case was:
[W]hether it was reasonable for an officer to enter a locked closet without a search warrant after responding to an armed domestic dispute, arresting the suspect and removing him from the residence, and gaining information that indicated a grenade may have been present in the closet. [iii]
It should be noted that the government did not argue that the officers had the wife’s consent to enter the closet; as such, this was not before the court in this case.
At the outset, the court examined relevant principals related to the exigent circumstances exception. The court stated:
The Supreme Court has recognized a variety of specific circumstances that may constitute an exigency sufficient to justify the warrantless entry and search of private property. These circumstances have included when officers must enter to fight an on-going fire, prevent the destruction of evidence, or continue in “hot pursuit” of a fleeing suspect. Brigham City, 547 U.S. at 403 (citing Michigan v. Tyler, 436 U.S. 499, 509, 98 S. Ct. 1942, 56 L. Ed. 2d 486 (1978); Ker v. California, 374 U.S. 23, 40, 83 S. Ct. 1623, 10 L. Ed. 2d 726 (1963) (plurality opinion); and United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38, 42, 43, 96 S. Ct. 2406, 49 L. Ed. 2d 300 (1976)). In addition to these well-established exigencies, the Supreme Court and this Circuit have held that more general “emergencies,” if enveloped by a sufficient level of urgency, may also constitute an exigency and justify a warrantless entry and search. See generally, Brigham City, 547 U.S. at 403; United States v. Hill, 649 F.3d 258, 265 (4th Cir. 2011).
Under this more general emergency-as-exigency approach, in order for a warrantless search to pass constitutional muster, “the person making entry must have had an objectively reasonable belief that an emergency existed that required immediate entry to render assistance or prevent harm to persons or property within.” United States v. Moss, 963 F.2d 673, 678 (4th Cir. 1992). An objectively reasonable belief must be based on specific articulable facts and reasonable inferences that could have been drawn therefrom. See Mora v. City of Gaithersburg, 519 F.3d 216, 224 (4th Cir. 2008) (citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889 (1968)). [iv] [emphasis added]
The court also noted five factors that are helpful in determining whether exigent circumstances exception is reasonable in a particular situation. The five factors are as follows:
(1) The degree of urgency involved and the amount of time necessary to obtain a warrant;
(2) The officers’ reasonable belief that the contraband is about to be removed or destroyed;
(3) The possibility of danger to police guarding the site;
(4) Information indicating the possessors of the contraband are aware that the police are on their trail; and
(5) The ready destructibility of the contraband. [v]
The court then examined the facts of Yengel’s case in light of the above rules and factors. First, the court noted that the information possessed by the officers regarding the nature of the danger posed by the grenade was limited. In fact, they noted that the only information possessed by the officers at the time of the search indicated that the threat was stable rather than immediate. The court noted that Mrs. Yengel only told the police about a grenade and made no mention of any other explosives in the home. Further, she provided no information as to whether the grenade was believed to be “live” or inert. The court stated:
[E]ven the presence of explosive materials alone, while heightening the danger, would not automatically provide an exigent basis for a search. See United States v. Bonitz, 826 F.2d 954, 957 (10th Cir. 1987) (concluding no exigency existed where officers found cans of gun powder because “[s]tanding undisturbed, cans of gun powder are inert”). The presence of explosive materials must be tied to objective facts that sufficiently increase the likelihood, urgency, and magnitude of the threat to the level of an emergency. [vi] [emphasis added]
Second, the court noted that the “immobile and inaccessible location of the grenade further diminished” the level of danger posed by the grenade. [vii] Particularly, the grenade was locked in a closet and the only person with access to the closet, Yengel, was in custody.
Lastly, no officers on the scene saw fit to evacuate the child who was asleep in close proximity to the closet that contained the grenade or nearby residents. The court placed great emphasis on implication of this fact. Specifically, the court stated:
[T]he fact that no officers on the scene sought to evacuate the nearby residences, or, in particular, to evacuate Mrs. Yengel’s young son who was sleeping in the room directly next to the alleged grenade provides stark evidence that a reasonable police officer would not — and did not — believe an emergency was on-going, such as would justify a warrantless entry. [viii]
As such, the court held that the police did not possess sufficient exigent circumstances in Yengel’s case to justify the warrantless search of his closet. In closing, the court stated:
While we recognize preventive action may well be justified in the face of an exigency, we conclude the factual circumstances of this case simply do not rise to that level. Inevitably, every police interaction with the public will carry with it an apprehension of the unknown; but not every interaction presents an emergency requiring preventive action. Rather, when uncertainty is tethered to objective facts that increase the likelihood, urgency, and magnitude of a threat, an emergency may be present and preventive action may be warranted. Where, as here, however, the objective facts decrease the likelihood, urgency, and magnitude of a threat, any uncertainty is like-wise tempered, and the exigency dissipates.
Therefore, the court affirmed the grant of the motion to suppress.
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] No. 12-4317, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 3290 (4th Cir. 2013)
[ii] Id. at 3-6
[iii] Id. at 1-2
[iv] Id. at 9-10
[v] Id. at 10-11 (citing United States v. Turner, 650 F.2d 526 (4th Cir. 1981))
[vi] Id. at 13
[vii] Id. at 15
[viii] Id. at 16