On May 21, 2014, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the Morris v. Town of Lexington et al. [i], which serves as an excellent review of the law pertaining to warrantless entry into private residences. The relevant facts of Morris, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
According to Morris’s complaint, a 911 operator in Alabama received an emergency phone call from a highly intoxicated woman, who said that she had been “abandoned” and did not know where she was. She requested that someone be sent to pick her up.
Town of Lexington Police Officer Lee Bradford and Reserve Police Officers Matt Wigginton and Jan Montgomery and Town of Anderson Police Chief Mark Bowers responded to the 911 call and on arriving at Morris’s address found the woman who made the 911 call standing outside his house. She claimed “vaguely and generally” that she was in danger and that someone had been beating Morris’s horses. The woman made no accusations against Morris.
After placing the woman in a chair on the porch in front of Morris’s house, the officers knocked on the front door. Morris was in the house, asleep. His girlfriend woke him, and he went to the front door. While Morris stood inside the threshold, the officers asked him about the woman sitting in the chair. He said that he was unacquainted with her but knew her sister.
When the officers told Morris that the woman said his horses were being abused, he expressed concern and informed the officers that he would put on his boots and check on them. Bradford immediately informed him he was “not going anywhere.” When Morris stepped away toward the interior of the house, Bradford, Wigginton, and Bowers entered the house and followed him. Morris told them to leave—that if they wanted to search the house, they would have to obtain a warrant. Bowers and Wigginton left and stood on the front porch. Bradford stood in the front doorway, holding the door open.
At this point, Lauderdale County Deputy Sheriffs James Distefano and Patrick Davis arrived on the scene and were briefed on what had taken place—that Bradford, Wigginton, and Bowers had entered Morris’s house without a warrant, and that Wigginton and Bowers had stepped back outside when Morris told them to leave. Bradford had refused to leave; he remained in the doorway. When Morris tried to close the door, Bradford shoved him. Morris, retaliating, punched him. With that, Bradford, Bowers, Wigginton, Distefano, and Davis entered the house, brought Morris to the floor and subdued him… [ii]
Initially, the grand jury refused to indict Morris. The case was presented a second time with additional facts and Morris was indicted. The case went to trial and Morris was acquitted. He filed suit, alleging among other things, that the officers illegally entered his home in violation of the Fourth Amendment and unlawfully arrested him, without probable cause, for assault. The district court denied the officers motion for qualified immunity and the officers appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The first issue before the court of appeals was whether the officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they first entered Morris’s home and then when Officer Bradford stood in his doorway. The second issue was whether the officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they arrested Morris for assault.
As to the issue of whether the officers unlawfully entered Morris’s home, the court stated that:
[I]f there is one principle that is firmly established in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, it is that “searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable.” Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403, 126 S. Ct. 1943, 1947, 164 L. Ed. 2d 650 (2006) [iii]
The officers argued that they had reasonable suspicion to detain Morris and, as such, it was reasonable for them to enter his home without a warrant to accomplish the detention. Noting that there is no case law to support the officer’s argument, the court stated that even if it were correct, the officers still lacked reasonable suspicion to detain Morris in this case. Specifically, the court stated:
Bradford and Bowers say they had reasonable suspicion to detain Morris, to make a Terry stop. Reasonable suspicion of what? And precisely when did they have it? They do not say. They did not have reasonable suspicion of anything concerning Morris when they approached the front door of his house and knocked, for the woman had said nothing at all indicating that Morris had done anything wrong. So, the officers’ reasonable suspicion had to have arisen after Morris opened the door.
And what did the officers see when Morris opened the door? A man who had been sleeping, who had just awakened and had not put on his shoes and was unarmed. When the officers informed him that the woman sitting on the porch had told them that someone was beating his horses, his reaction was to put on his boots and check on his horses. What the officers faced was an unarmed man who had just gotten out of bed and was concerned about the safety of his horses. He was not a man armed and presently dangerous, or a man who “ha[d] engaged in, or is about to engage in, criminal activity,” United States v. White, 593 F.3d 1199, 1202 (11th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted), and thus was not subject to a Terry stop. [iv]
Thus, the court held that the officers did not have reasonable suspicion to detain Morris and subsequently violated the Fourth Amendment when they entered his home to detain him.
The second issue before the court was whether the officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they arrested Morris for assault. The court first noted that:
An arrest without a warrant and lacking probable cause violates the Constitution and can underpin a § 1983 claim, but the existence of probable cause at the time of arrest is an absolute bar to a subsequent constitutional challenge to the arrest.” Brown v. City of Huntsville, 608 F.3d 724, 734 (11th Cir. 2010). The probable cause standard “is met when the facts and circumstances within the officer’s knowledge . . . would cause a prudent person to believe, under the circumstances shown, that the suspect has committed, is committing, or is about to commit an offense.” Durruthy v. Pastor, 351 F.3d 1080, 1088 (11th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation mark omitted). For an officer to be entitled to qualified immunity, however, he need not have actual probable cause; “arguable” probable cause will suffice. Brown, 608 F.3d at 734 . Thus, so long as “reasonable officers in the same circumstances and possessing the same knowledge as the Defendants could have believed that probable cause existed to arrest Plaintiff,” that is enough. Kingsland v. City of Miami, 382 F.3d 1220, 1232 (11th Cir. 2004) [v]
The court of appeals then noted that under Alabama law, a person has right to use force to resist an unlawful arrest. Further, a person has the right to use reasonable force to prevent a criminal trespass and to defend one’s self from unlawful physical force. However, the court also noted that the right to use physical force to defend one’s self or property is an affirmative defense to be raised in court as a defense to an assault charge, as he did in his criminal case. As such, the court held that the officers did have probable cause to believe Morris committed assault against Officer Bradford when he retaliated and punched the officer. Specifically, the court stated:
Although Alabama law permits a citizen to use reasonable force in defense of self or property, Ala. Code §§ 13A-3-23, -25, this is an affirmative defense, id. § 13A-3-21. Morris could plead the use of such force as a defense to a charge of assault; in fact, he prevailed when he was tried on that charge. But the fact remains that once Morris punched Bradford, the officers had probable cause, or at the very least arguable probable cause, to believe that Morris had committed an assault.
Therefore, the officers’ arrest of Morris after he punched Bradford cannot be considered a violation of Morris’s Fourth Amendment right not to be seized without probable cause. [vi]
As such, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of qualified immunity regarding the unlawful home entry, and reversed the denial of qualified immunity regarding the unlawful arrest allegation.
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. 13-10434 (11th Cir. Decided May 21, 2014)
[ii] Id. at 3-5
[iii] Id. at 11
[iv] Id. at 13-14
[v] Id. at 14-15
[vi] Id. at 16-17