On September 14, 2021, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Babcock v. Olson[i], which serves as an excellent review of constitutional law as it pertains to exigent entry into private premises. The relevant facts of Babcock are as follows:
On November 1, 2016, at 8:47 a.m., the Martin County Sheriff’s Office dispatch received a call from an anonymous third party reporting a possible domestic disturbance. The call details were then radioed in, stating that the disturbance “sound[ed] like a full on fight in backyard.” Id. Plaintiff also attaches a copy of the call details from the incident to his Amended Complaint, which reports, “could [hear] female yelling ‘stop stop stop’ and then some banging.” About six minutes later, at 8:53 a.m., Defendants Olson and Trocan arrived on scene at Plaintiff’s residence, a single-family home with a six-foot tall privacy fence around the sides and backyards.
Upon arrival, Defendant Olson did not see or hear any disturbance. Neither Defendant attempted to conduct a “knock and talk” at the front door of the residence, nor did they “conduct any investigation to corroborate the anonymous report of a domestic disturbance” or announce their presence before entering Plaintiff’s backyard. Instead, Defendant Olson went directly into the fenced backyard because that was the location the anonymous caller had provided as the source of the disturbance.
Once inside Plaintiff’s backyard, Defendants Olson and Trocan then began to search for any signs of a disturbance with their service weapons drawn. Plaintiff and another individual, C.A., were in a pop-up camper located in the backyard, watching as the deputies moved silently into the backyard. Id. When Defendants located the pop-up camper, they knocked on the door and ordered Plaintiff out at gunpoint. Id. Plaintiff and C.A. were then “separated, detained, and questioned.” Defendants remained on the property for four hours, detaining Plaintiff, “questioning him, obtaining statements, searching his backyard and camper, seizing his cell phone, and never even attempting to obtain a warrant.”[ii]
Babcock sued the two deputies and alleged they violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment when they entered his fenced backyard without a warrant and ordered him out of his camper, remaining on his property for four hours without a warrant. The district court dismissed Babcock’s suit and held that even if all facts he alleged were true, he did not allege a violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment. Babcock appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court of appeals first examined the legal principles that were applicable in Babcock’s case. The court identified the following legal principles as follows:
- The police may not conduct a warrantless search or arrest in one’s home absent exigent circumstances. Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 590, 100 S. Ct. 1371, 63 L. Ed. 2d 639 (1980).[iii]
- Exigent circumstances exist when there is “no time to secure a warrant” and a “compelling need for official action,” such as “risk of harm to the public or the police.” United States v. Holloway, 290 F.3d 1331, 1334 (11th Cir. 2002).[iv]
- The most urgent of these exigencies is “the need to protect or preserve life” in an emergency. at 1335. For the exception to apply, the government must demonstrate that the officer had an objectively reasonable belief that an individual in the home was either seriously injured or threatened with such an injury. See Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 402-03, 406, 126 S. Ct. 1943, 164 L. Ed. 2d 650 (2006).[v]
- We have found “police officers’ belief that someone inside a home needs immediate assistance [is] objectively reasonable” where there are “indicia of an urgent, ongoing emergency,” as where “officers have received emergency reports of an ongoing disturbance, arrived to find a chaotic scene, and observed violent behavior, or at least evidence of violent behavior.” United States v. Timmann, 741 F.3d 1170, 1179 (11th Cir. 2013).[vi]
- The exigent-circumstances exception to the warrant requirement applies even where police, in responding to an emergency, must act based on hurried, incomplete, or “ambiguous information concerning potentially serious consequences.” Holloway, 290 F.3d at 1339 (quoting 3 Wayne LaFave, Search and Seizure 6.6(a), at 391 (3d ed.1996)).[vii]
- While anonymous tips without indicia of reliability may not be reliable enough to justify investigatory stops in the absence of an emergency, Florida v. J.L. 529 U.S. 266, 270-71, 120 S. Ct. 1375, 146 L. Ed. 2d 254 (2000), “when an emergency is reported by an anonymous caller, the need for immediate action may outweigh the need to verify the reliability of the caller.” Holloway, 290 F.3d at 1339.[viii]
The court then applied the facts of Babcock’s case to the principles above. First, an anonymous caller reported a “full on fight” in Babcock’s backyard, with a woman repeatedly yelling, “stop”, along with hearing banging noises. Second, the call detail from the 911 operator notes that female could be heard yelling “stop” and banging noises were audible on the phone call. The court of appeals noted that this tends to corroborate the existence of a physical fight. Third, the deputies arrived within six minutes of the call and did not hear or see a fight. Fourth, the deputies entered through the fence into the backyard, guns drawn and checked for signs of the fight. Fifth, they saw the pop-up camper and ordered Babcock, and the female to exit. Sixth, the deputies remained at that location for, allegedly, four hours as they investigated and interviewed the parties.
Babcock argued that the deputies’ warrantless entry into his curtilage (the fenced backyard) violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment because they had a duty to corroborate the anonymous call prior to entering his backyard. However, the court of appeals noted
[W]hen an emergency involving a serious threat to human life has been reported by an anonymous caller, officers may be justified in taking immediate action even without corroborating the report. See Holloway, 290 F.3d at 1339.[ix]
Furthermore, the court considered that the fact that the 911 operator noted that she could hear banging and someone yelling “stop” on the phone call as corroboration that there was a fight in progress.
Babcock also argued that the deputies violated his Fourth Amendment rights by remaining on his curtilage for four hours without a warrant during the investigation. Regarding this argument, the court of appeals stated
It’s true that “a warrantless search must be strictly circumscribed by the exigencies which justify its initiation.” Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 393, 98 S. Ct. 2408, 57 L. Ed. 2d 290 (1978). But here, the deputies discovered, shortly after arriving at Babcock’s property, a teenage girl with a bloodied leg, and Babcock showed the deputies a video of the girl holding a knife to her own throat while Babcock berated her. See United States v. Babcock, 924 F.3d 1180, 1185 (11th Cir. 2019). The deputies were therefore justified in remaining on the property to investigate further by questioning Babcock and the girl.[x]
The court of appeals then held the case should be dismissed because the facts, as alleged by the plaintiff, show that the deputies had sufficient exigent circumstances to enter Babcock’s curtilage without a warrant and that they did not exceed the scope of the exigency during the investigation. Therefore, they affirmed the decision of the district court.
[i] No. 21-10463 (11th Cir. Decided September 14, 2021 Unpublished)
[iii] Babcock, No. 21-10463 at 2
[v] Id. at 3
[viii] Id. at 3-4
[ix] Id. at 5 (emphasis added)
[x] Id. at 5-6