Normally, the Fourth Amendment requires that law enforcement officers obtain a warrant in order to enter a person’s residence. However, there are exceptions to this rule such as consent and exigent circumstances, such as protection of life, to prevent the destruction of evidence, and hot pursuit. On October 3, 2013, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Wood [i] which serves as an excellent review of law that pertains to warrantless entry into private premises based upon the exigent circumstance of protection of life. The facts of Wood are as follows:
On November 14, 2009, at around 1 a.m., Officer Robert DeBellis was dispatched to Wood’s residence based on a 911 call reporting that a woman was being held inside against her will and was being injured.1 Officer DeBellis arrived outside of Wood’s residence and encountered a woman who told him that her friend was inside the residence “in distress, in fear for her life, and . . . being held against her will.” Officers David Dawson and David Brown, who also heard the dispatch, joined Officer DeBellis at the residence.
The door to the enclosed porch of the residence was locked. The landlord arrived and unlocked the porch door. The porch area led to two doors: one to the ground-floor apartment and the other to Wood’s second-floor apartment. The officers knocked on one door, and a resident appeared who directed them to Wood’s door. The officers then knocked on Wood’s door “for a certain period of time.”
Wood eventually appeared at the door and entered the porch. The District Court made no finding as to whether Wood remained on the porch, reentered the doorway of the apartment, or moved between these areas during the encounter with the police. After the officers asked Wood a few questions, Wood “abruptly” told the officers that he had a child upstairs in the apartment to care for and turned to leave. As he turned, Officer DeBellis grabbed Wood’s shoulder and, as he did so, saw that a gun was tucked in the back of Wood’s pants. Wood turned back to the officers and shoved Officer DeBellis, at which point the officers subdued Wood and placed him under arrest. [ii]
Wood was later indicted for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon under federal law. He filed a motion to suppress and argued the gun was the fruit of an illegal seizure of his person in his residence. The district court denied the motion. Wood plead guilty with the right to appeal. He then appealed the denial of the motion to suppress to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The issue before court was whether Wood was illegally seized and that illegal seizure resulted in the discovery of the firearm.
At the outset the court stated it had to determine at what specific point Wood was deemed seized under the Fourth Amendment. The court stated that a seizure of a person occurs when,
in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.” United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554 (1980). [iii]
The court then held that Wood was seized when Officer DeBellis grabbed him by the shoulder when he was on his porch or in the doorway to his home.
Next, the court had to determine whether it was reasonable for the officers to seize Wood when he was located on his porch or in the doorway to his home. The court examined the relevant precedent and noted:
While a search of a home generally requires a warrant, see, e.g., Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 586 (1980), there are exceptions to the warrant requirement, see Illinois v. McArthur, 531 U.S. 326, 331 (2001) (collecting cases and listing exceptions to the warrant requirement, including exigent circumstances). Among those exceptions is the need to protect an individual from imminent harm. See Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006) (“One exigency obviating the requirement of a warrant is the need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury.”) (citing Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 392 (1978)); Parkhurst v. Trapp, 77 F.3d 707, 711 (3d Cir. 1996)(holding that exigent circumstances exist where “officers reasonably . . . believe that someone is in imminent danger.”) (emphasis omitted); cf. Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103, 118 (2006) (stating that no question could reasonably be raised “about the authority of the police to enter a dwelling to protect a resident from domestic violence”). If the officers have probable cause to believe an individual in the home is in imminent danger, they may enter it without a warrant. Parkhurst, 77 F.3d at 711.[emphasis added] [iv]
The court then examined the facts of the case to determine if the officers had probable cause to believe a person inside Wood’s home was in imminent danger. First, the court noted that the officers received a dispatch that stated that a person called 911 to report that a woman was being held against her will. Then upon arrival at the dispatch location, the officers were met by a woman who stated that she received text messaged from the woman inside the home who stated that she was in fear for her life and was being held against her will. The court then held:
Those facts, when taken together, provided a reasonable basis to believe exigent circumstances required the search of the home without a warrant. The officers were therefore authorized to enter the home to search for a victim or to determine whether there was an ongoing threat of imminent harm.4 Brigham City, 547 U.S. at 403; see also Randolph, 547 U.S. at 118; Couden v. Duffy, 446 F.3d 483, 496 (3d Cir. 2006). [v]
As such the court affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress because the officers were justified in seizing Wood in his home without a warrant during this investigation. It is worth noting that the court stated it was not going to decide whether Woods’ seizure occurred inside or outside the home where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy because the officers were allowed, in this case, to enter the home without a warrant.
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. 12-4208 (3rd Cir. Decided October 3, 2013 Unpub.)
[ii] Id. at 2-3
[iii] Id. at 6
[iv] Id. at 6-7
[v] Id. at 7