On September 16, 2015, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Moore v. Pederson [i], which serves as excellent review regarding warrantless home entry to arrest a suspect. The relevant facts of Moore, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
In the early morning hours of November 15, 2008, Defendant Seminole County Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Pederson was working road patrol. He received a dispatch from the Sheriff’s Office in response to a call from someone at the Colonial Grand apartments. The complainant reported that a male and two females were outside, yelling at one another, though the complainant added that the dispute did “not sound violent.”
At approximately 4:45 a.m., Pederson arrived at the apartment complex. When Pederson got there, the caller met him and explained that a man and two women had been arguing in the parking lot and that one of the women had left in a white vehicle. According to the caller, verbal disputes involving these people were “an everyday occurrence.” The caller then directed Pederson to Plaintiff Elvan Moore’s apartment as the unit into which the couple retreated.
Based on this information, Pederson approached Moore’s residence to further investigate the situation. As he neared the door, he heard what he described sounded like an argument, though he could not make out any words. In addition, Pederson stated that he heard music coming from the apartment.
Pederson knocked on Moore’s door. When Moore opened the door, he was wearing a towel wrapped at the waist, and two women were visible inside the apartment—one naked and one clothed. Though neither woman asked for assistance or otherwise indicated she was in distress, Pederson stated that he thought that one of the women “had a scowl on her face” and “appeared visibly upset, pissed off,” but he could not discern at whom she was mad. From Pederson’s “initial impression,” he thought “maybe this is a girlfriend that just walked in on a boyfriend who is with another woman.”
Pederson began interviewing Moore in order to investigate Moore’s involvement in the parking-lot disturbance. In addition, Pederson explained, he did not know whether “a domestic violence situation” existed, based on what he had seen.
In response to the questioning, Moore expressed lack of knowledge that a parking-lot disturbance had occurred, and when Pederson requested that Moore provide his name and identification, Moore declined. Moore also refused subsequent requests from Pederson to identify himself.
At some point during the conversation and after Moore’s multiple refusals to provide identification, Pederson handcuffed Moore. At the time, Moore was standing inside the doorway of his apartment. After Pederson handcuffed Moore, Pederson led Moore, who was still wearing a towel when he was handcuffed, from the doorway of his apartment to the patrol vehicle.
…. Moore was subsequently charged with violating Florida Criminal Statute 843.02: resisting officer – obstructing without violence. The charges against Moore were eventually dropped. [ii]
Moore later filed suit and alleged that Pederson violated his Fourth Amendment rights when he entered his apartment without a warrant to grab him from inside his doorway. He also filed a state law claim for emotional distress under state law which was later dismissed due to the fact that he did not state facts to support that claim. The district court granted summary judgment for Deputy Pederson on all claims and dismissed the suit. Moore appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court first noted that a government official such as Deputy Pederson is entitled to qualified immunity, and therefore summary judgment, if he was acting in a discretionary capacity and he either (1) did not violate the constitution, (2) or, if he did violate the constitution, if the law was not clearly established such that a reasonable officer would have known his conduct was illegal. Therefore, the to defeat qualified immunity, the plaintiff must show (1) that his rights were violated, and (2) that the law was clearly established such that a reasonable officer would have known he was violating the right. A right is clearly established in the Eleventh Circuit when there is case law from the Unites States Supreme Court, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals or the highest court of the state where the incident occurred that is similar enough to put an official on notice regarding the lawfulness of his or her conduct.
Therefore, the court first set out to determine if Deputy Pederson violated the Fourth Amendment when he grabbed Moore, who was standing inside the doorway to his apartment, and arrested him without a warrant. Examining prior Eleventh Circuit case law, the court stated:
[I]n McClish v. Nugent, 483 F.3d 1231 (11th Cir. 2007), we held that an officer who, without a warrant, or probable cause along with exigent circumstances or consent, “reached into [a] house, grabbed [the plaintiff], and forcibly pulled him out onto the porch” in order to arrest him, violated the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights. [iii] [emphasis added]
In applying the facts of Moore’s case to the rule from McClish above, the court stated that Deputy Pederson did not have warrant, did not have probable cause, and did not have exigent circumstance or consent to enter. Specifically, the court stated:
Pederson did not have a warrant, and he lacked probable cause, exigent circumstances, and consent. He nonetheless breached Moore’s home’s threshold for the purpose of arresting Moore when he handcuffed Moore, who was standing inside his apartment’s doorway at the time. As a result, Pederson violated Moore’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures. [iv]
Pederson argued that he did have probable cause to arrest Moore for a violation Florida Statute Section 843.02 which makes it illegal to resist an officer without violence. The violation would have been, according to Pederson, refusing to identify himself. However, the court noted that this law only applies during a lawful Terry stop, meaning one where reasonable suspicion of criminal activity is present. The court stated:
In Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court held that an officer does not violate the Fourth Amendment by conducting a “brief, investigatory stop when the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.” Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 123, 120 S. Ct. 673, 675 (2000) (citing Terry, 392 U.S. at 30, 88 S. Ct. at 1868). A Terry stop is a type of seizure under the Fourth Amendment because it restrains the freedom of the detainee to walk away or otherwise remove himself from the situation. Terry, 392 U.S. at 16, 88 S. Ct. at 1877. The standard of “reasonable suspicion” that is required to justify a Terry stop is significantly more lenient than that of “probable cause,” which is necessary to support a warrant. Id. at 123, 120 S. Ct. at 675-76. [v] [emphasis added]
In this case, while Deputy Pederson was responding to a call for service, that call involved a verbal argument in a parking lot where one person left in a car and the caller advised that verbal arguments were common among these individuals. The caller even stated that it did not sound violent. Thus, while the deputy had a right to knock and ask questions, he lacked reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot.
However, for the sake of argument, the court also examined Pederson’s argument as if the facts of the case did provide reasonable suspicion in order to explore whether that would change the outcome in this case. The court then examined if, assuming reasonable suspicion was present, there were exigent circumstance to support entry into the residence, and whether those exigent circumstances, when combined with the lesser standard of proof of “reasonable suspicion” (as opposed to probable cause), even support a non-consensual entry into a residence.
Regarding the presence of exigent circumstances, the court stated:
But significantly, the circumstances in this case did not satisfy the definition of “exigent circumstances” either before or after Pederson’s interaction with Moore. Before Pederson knocked on Moore’s door, all he knew was that a neighbor had complained of a non-violent argument in the parking lot where one of the participants had left the scene, and Pederson heard what he believed could have been arguing and music coming from inside the apartment. These facts are a far cry from an “emergency situation involving endangerment to life” that we have previously described as constituting exigent circumstances. See, e.g., United States v. Holloway, 290 F.3d 1331, 1337 (11th Cir. 2002).
And after Moore opened the door for Pederson, nothing that Pederson reported observing established or even suggested that anyone’s life or health was at risk. At worst, Pederson saw a naked man, a naked woman, and a clothed woman with a scowl on her face. No one appeared injured in any way; Pederson did not report seeing any furniture or other items strewn about; and Pederson did not identify any behavior or conduct that suggested that any of the occupants of the residence contemplated violence in any way. Moreover, while the complainant reported hearing arguments from that apartment on other occasions, which he considered a nuisance, he specifically described the disputes as “verbal” and nonviolent. This is not the stuff of which life- or limb-threatening emergencies that constitute “exigent circumstances” are made. As a result, Pederson could not have lawfully executed a Terry stop in this case.[vi]
The court then stated that because Deputy Pederson was not conducting a lawful Terry stop when Moore was standing inside his residence, Moore was free to decide to refuse to answer questions. The court cited the Supreme Court case of Kentucky v. King, which held:
When the police knock on a door . . . [and the] occupant chooses to open the door and speak with the officers, the occupant need not allow the officers to enter the premises and may refuse to answer any questions at any time. [vii] [emphasis added]
Further, the court stated:
We have said that an officer may not enter the home for the purpose of effecting a warrantless arrest unless that officer has both probable cause and either exigent circumstances or consent.Bashir, 445 F.3d at 1328. So we cannot see how law enforcement could enter a home to detain a person on reasonable, articulable suspicion of a criminal violation (resisting an officer without violence)—a much lower standard than probable cause—when neither exigent circumstances nor consent exist. That just makes no sense to us. See United States v. Saari, 272 F.3d 804, 809 (6th Cir. 2001) (“It would defy reason to hold . . . that a warrantless in-home seizure is authorized to further an investigation, but that either a warrant or exigent circumstances are necessary when officers have the probable cause and intent to arrest.”). [viii] [emphasis added]
Therefore, the court held that since the deputy lacked probable cause and warrant in Moore’s case, it was a violation of Moore’s Fourth Amendment rights when he entered his home to arrest him. Further, reasonable suspicion, if combined with exigent circumstances, will not support warrantless, non-consensual entry into a residence; this is because reasonable suspicion is a lower legal standard than probable cause.
Having determined that a constitutional right was violated, the court then set out on the next step regarding qualified immunity; that is, to determine if this right was clearly established such that a reasonable officer should have known he was violating the constitution.
Moore argued that because seemingly all cases that refer to Terry stops occur in public, the law was clearly established that Terry stops cannot occur in a private residence. The court said the absence of case law on a topic does not clearly establish the law that the conduct is unconstitutional. Further, Moore was not able to cite case law that occurred before his incident that held that Pederson’s conduct was unconstitutional. Lastly, the case he does cite leaves open a question as to whether the officer acted reasonably under the constitution; particularly, it held that while reasonable suspicion does not support a warrantless search of a residence, an officer can approach the residence to question occupants. [ix]
As such, the court held that the law was not clearly established in this area such as to put a reasonable officer on notice that he was violating the constitution.
Therefore, Deputy Pederson is entitled to qualified immunity in this case.
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. 14-14201 (11th Cir. Decided September 16, 2015)
[ii] Id. at 3-6
[iii] Id. at 11
[v] Id. at 12
[vi] Id. at 13-14
[vii] Id. at 14 (quoting Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452 (2011))
[viii] Id. at 15
[ix] Id. at 19