On June 11, 2020, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Yarbrough[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to protective sweeps of residences.  In Yarbrough, a detective received “unverified, anonymous phone calls and e-mails” that stated there was “a lot of traffic” and “possible” drug activity at Yarbrough’s house.  The detective conducted a record check on the residents and learned the Yarbrough and his wife, Shellie, both had outstanding arrest warrants.  The detective went to the residence to serve the warrants but was unsuccessful.  On August 31, 2016, the detective went to Yarbrough’s residence to attempt to serve the warrants.  This time, Yarbrough and two other men were standing near a truck in the driveway.  There was also another vehicle in the driveway.

The detective detained all three men.   No weapons or drugs were found on their persons.  He asked Yarbrough if Shellie was home, and he said that she was.  The detective then went to the door to execute her arrest warrant. He called Shellie’s name and identified himself as from the sheriff’s department.  He then observed Shellie run to another room in the house and shut a door.  The detective entered the house, arrested Shellie, and took her outside to another detective.  He then re-entered the residence and did a quick protective sweep that took less than one minute.  The detective did not locate any other people but did see two shotguns and a metal tin with a crystal-like substance on a dresser in the bedroom.

The detective subsequently received consent to search the residence from both Yarbrough and Shellie.

Yarbrough was subsequently indicted on federal weapons charges and he filed a motion to suppress.  The district court held that the protective sweep was not supported by a reasonable belief that other persons were present who posed a threat to the officers; the court granted Yarbrough’s motion to suppress.  The government appealed the grant of the motion to suppress to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The issue on appeal was whether there was sufficient reasonable suspicion that other persons who pose a threat to the officers were present in the residence at the time they conducted the protective sweep.

The court of appeals first examined the legal principles that pertain to protective sweeps.  The court stated

The Fourth Amendment safeguards the rights of the people to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. Const. amend. IV. A search conducted in the absence of a search warrant is, usually, presumptively unreasonable. Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551, 559, 124 S. Ct. 1284, 157 L. Ed. 2d 1068 (2004). One exception to this rule is the “protective sweep,” which  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 S. Ct. 1093, 108 L. Ed. 2d 276 (1990). The sweep must be “narrowly confined to a cursory visual inspection of those places in which a person might be hiding.Id.

Officers executing a valid arrest may conduct a protective sweep. See United States v. Yeary, 740 F.3d 569, 579 (11th Cir. 2014) (“Law enforcement officers are permitted, in the context of a valid arrest, to conduct a protective sweep of a residence for officers’ safety.”). To justify a protective sweep beyond the immediate location of the arrest, officers must have reasonable suspicion “that the area to be swept harbors an individual posing a danger to those on the arrest scene.” Buie, 494 U.S. at 334. Reasonable suspicion is an analysis of “the totality of the circumstances—the whole picture.” United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 8, 109 S. Ct. 1581, 104 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1990) (quoting United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417, 101 S. Ct. 690, 66 L. Ed. 2d 621 (1981)). “Whether or not a Fourth Amendment violation has occurred depends upon objective reasonableness in light of the facts and circumstances.” United States v. Hromada, 49 F.3d 685, 691 (11th Cir. 1995).[ii]

The court then examined the facts of the case relevant to the issue at hand.  First, the court noted that the detective received numerous tips that the house had heavy traffic and was possibly a drug house.   It is important to note that anonymous tips, standing alone, do not provide officers with reasonable suspicion.  However, even though the tips were anonymous, they can still be considered as part of the “totality of the circumstances.”  The court also noted that drug houses are known for having multiple persons present and posing a danger of weapons to police.

Second, there were two vehicles in the driveway, which indicates that multiple people could be present in the residence.  In fact, there were two additional males on the scene when the detective arrived.  The court stated that this, plus the multiple vehicles enhanced the “real possibility that additional people were inside the home.

Third, the court stated that Shellie’s furtive behavior of running into a bathroom when the detective called her name added to the reasonable suspicion that other people could be present that pose a threat by being similarly non-compliant.

The court also noted that the sweep was very short in time.  It lasted approximately one minute and the detective only looked in places that could conceal a person.  It was also conducted immediately after Shellie’s arrest.  This also showed that the sweep was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The court of appeals then held that the detectives “had a reasonable, objective apprehension for their safety sufficient to justify a protective sweep of Yarbrough’s residence.”  Therefore, the court reversed the grant of the motion to suppress.



[i] No. 18-10624 (11th Cir. Decided June 11, 2020)

[ii] Id. at 11-12 (emphasis added)

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