On October 15, 2015, the Court of Appeals of Georgia decided Causey v. State [i], which serves as an excellent review of the legal requirements for officers when conducting a protective sweep of a residence. The relevant facts of Causey, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
The evidence presented at the hearing on the motion to suppress shows that Deputy William Schwartz and at least three other officers of the Floyd County Sheriff’s office, who were seeking to execute an arrest warrant for one Jesse Powell, went to Causey’s home based on a tip that Powell could be found there; Powell did not reside at that address and the officers did not have a warrant to search Causey’s home. Officers Schwartz and Salter went to a position where they could observe the side door of the house; Corporal Whitfield and Deputy Burt approached the front door of the home and were able to observe Powell sitting on a couch. When the officers knocked and announced that it was the police, the officers at the front door saw Powell get up and run through the house. Schwartz then saw Powell run past the side door and saw “a couple other flashes go by”; he clarified that he recognized one of the “flashes” as a fellow officer, apparently Corporal Whitfield. Schwartz kicked in the side door, entered the premises with Deputy Salter, and, along with Whitfield and yet another officer (Watkins), chased Powell into a bathroom where a struggle ensued. Powell was eventually subdued and placed in hand restraints. Whitfield and Powell were injured in the struggle, an ambulance was called, and ultimately, Whitfield was taken to the hospital to get stitches. Causey and a guest were handcuffed and sitting on a sofa during this time.
While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, Schwartz walked through the house to “clear[ ] the house,” or “to make sure there’s nobody else hiding in a closet or anything else, to make sure it’s safe.” He did so “as a safety precaution to ourselves while we’re there,” and “to make sure the scene is safe especially before bringing in other public safety personnel,” meaning in this case, medical personnel. He testified that such a search was especially necessary in a “fast moving” situation. Schwartz further testified that given that Causey was a known drug user, that Causey’s guest also had a pending warrant for a violent offense, and that Powell was fleeing law enforcement, “[i]t wouldn’t be a far stretch of the imagination for someone to be there in a closet.” Schwartz later added that the officers “had to be there”; read in context and construed in favor of the trial court’s ruling, this statement refers to the officers remaining at the house until the ambulance arrived to care for Whitfield. Finally, Schwartz testified, “You’ve got everybody known to be drug users. You know, people that have tried to cause harm to police before. . . [and therefore] I would have reason to believe, in a place like that, there would be more people that may possibly be wanted for warrants.”
While clearing the house, Schwartz looked into a bedroom and observed what he suspected was methamphetamine in plain sight on a dresser. Schwartz did not collect the suspected contraband; rather he went to the living room, found Causey handcuffed and sitting on a sofa, and read Causey his Miranda rights. Causey then consented to a search, signed a consent form, and answered questions in which he admitted that the drugs were found in his bedroom and that the drugs did not belong to the guest. Schwartz then collected the suspected contraband and searched the remainder of the house for other illegal substances, but none were found. [ii]
Causey was arrested and filed a motion to suppress. The trial court denied his motion. The court held that entry into the residence was supported by exigent circumstances, and the protective sweep was justified based on the totality of the circumstances. Causey was convicted and he appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the Court of Appeals of Georgia.
At the outset, the court of appeals noted:
“[A]bsent exigent circumstances, the Fourth Amendment prohibits police from searching an individual’s home or business without a search warrant even to execute an arrest warrant for a third person.” Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U. S. 469, 474 (I) (106 SCt 1292, 89 LE2d 452) (1986), citing Steagald v. United States, 451 U. S. 204 (101 SCt 1642, 68 LE2d 38) (1981). [iii]
The trial court, at the motion to suppress, ruled that the officer had sufficient exigent circumstances, and Causey did not contest this on appeal. As such, the initial entry into Causey’s home was not an issue before this court.
Therefore, the issue on appeal was whether the officer’s protective sweep of Causey’s residence, after Powell (the wanted person) was arrested, was legal. The protective sweep is what led to the discovery of the methamphetamine.
The court then noted legal rules regarding protective sweeps. The court stated:
A ‘protective sweep’ is a quick and limited search of premises, incident to an arrest and conducted to protect the safety of police officers or others.” Maryland v. Buie, 494 U. S. 325, 327 (110 SCt 1093, 108 LE2d 276) (1990)…[T]he United States Supreme Court has held that incident to an arrest in a home, officers may “as a precautionary matter and without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, look in closets and other spaces immediately adjoining the place of arrest from which an attack could be immediately launched.” Id. at 334 (III) (emphasis supplied). But to search beyond the immediately adjoining spaces, there must be articulable facts which, taken together with the rational inferences from those facts, would warrant a reasonably prudent officer in believing that the area to be swept harbors an individual posing a danger to those on the arrest scene. A “mere inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch” that the home may harbor an individual posing a danger to the officers is insufficient to support a warrantless sweep. Id. at 332 (III) (citation and punctuation omitted). [iv] [emphasis added]
The court of appeals also noted that the United States Supreme Court, in Maryland v. Buie, refused to establish a “bright-line rule” that police are permitted to conduct a protective sweep whenever they arrest someone in a home for a violent crime. Specifically, the court examined the Supreme Court’s rationale in Buie. They stated:
[T]he Supreme Court held even though some danger might exist, a protective sweep requires a “reasonable, individualized suspicion” of that danger:
[D]espite the danger that inheres in on-the-street encounters and the need for police to act quickly for their own safety, the Court in Terry did not adopt a bright-line rule authorizing frisks for weapons in all confrontational encounters. Even in high crime areas, where the possibility that any given individual is armed is significant, Terry requires reasonable, individualized suspicion before a frisk for weapons can be conducted. That approach is applied to the protective sweep of a house. [v] [emphasis added]
The court of appeals then examined the facts of Causey’s case in light of the rules set forth above. The court stated that the officers did not testify to any facts that supported their belief that there were more than three people in the house. The court noted that the officers said they imagined there could be others present because Causey was a known drug user. Further, the situation was fast moving. However, the court stated that that it takes specific facts, rather than generalities, to lead a reasonable officer to believe more individuals are present that could pose a threat in order to justify a protective sweep. The court stated:
Here, Schwartz did not testify to any information to support the presence of additional dangerous individuals in the home. He could only imagine that such people might be present based on the facts that Powell was fleeing, that one or two of the occupants had outstanding warrants, and that the occupants of the residence were drug users. None of these facts support an rational inference that anyone other than the three men near the front door were present, let alone dangerous. We therefore conclude that the State failed to present articulable facts and rational inferences from those facts to warrant a reasonably prudent officer in believing that the remainder of Causey’s home harbored any individuals who posed a danger to the officers or others. See Buie, 494 U. S. at 334 (III). [vi]
The court also noted that the evidence still may not require suppression because Causey consented to the search. However, the consent must be free and voluntary and properly “attenuated” from the illegal protective sweep. However, the trial court did not decide this issue, therefore, the court of appeals remanded the case back to that court for a decision.
- When an officer arrests a person in a residence, he or she cannot automatically conduct a sweep of the residence to make sure the scene is safe or nobody else is present.
- When officers arrest a person in a residence, officers may, as a precautionary matter and without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, look in closets and other spaces immediately adjoining the place of arrest from which an attack could be immediately launched. Remember, this is a “look” for additional dangerous people, not a search of bags and articles for evidence.
- To search beyond the immediately adjoining spaces, there must be articulable facts which, taken together with the rational inferences from those facts, would warrant a reasonably prudent officer in believing that the area to be swept harbors an individual that poses a danger to those on the arrest scene. [vii]
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.
[vii] Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325 (1990)