On June 3, 2021, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals decided Cost v. Borough of Dickson City[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to reasonable suspicion required to detain a person. The relevant facts of Jones are as follows:
On the evening of September 3, 2016, Renee Giedieviells, who lived across the street from Plaintiffs, heard yelling from Plaintiffs’ home. After hearing a woman yell “Help!”, Ms. Giedieviells called 911 to report the situation and said that she believed children were inside. App. 357. The Dickson City Police Department dispatched Ranakoski and McMorrow to Plaintiffs’ home. When the officers arrived at the home, they alleged that they could hear yelling, including a woman screaming “stop” several times. App. 201. The home became quiet when the officers approached the front door.
The officers knocked and announced themselves at the front and side doors several times over the course of the next ten to fifteen minutes. Receiving no response, McMorrow contacted Police Chief Michael Resetar and obtained permission to force entry into Plaintiffs’ home. The officers entered and found Plaintiffs at a table close to the door.
The officers handcuffed Plaintiffs and Ranakoski swept the home to check for any possible threats. Ranakoski found Cost, Sr.’s wife, Heather Rought, upstairs with two children and brought them downstairs. Rought told McMorrow that there was a loud argument between Cost, Sr. and their daughter regarding her cell phone.
Cost, Jr. provided his identification to Ranakoski, who then uncuffed him. Cost, Sr. refused to provide his name, so Ranakoski brought him to the Lackawanna County Processing Center for identification and issued him a citation for disorderly conduct pursuant to 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5503(a)(4). The citation was ultimately dismissed because Ranakoski did not appear at the hearing.[ii]
Cost, Jr., and Cost, Sr. both filed suit. Cost, Sr. sued for (1) unlawful search and seizure in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments against all Defendants; (2) excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment against all Defendants; (3) state law assault and battery against Ranakoski; (4) false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution against all Defendants under both the Fourth Amendment and state law; and (5) Fourth Amendment failure to train and inadequate supervision against Dickson City. Cost, Jr. sued for the same claims but did not include the malicious prosecution claim.[iii] [Note: This article will not discuss the state law claims.]
The defendant officers filed a motion for summary judgment and the district court granted the motion. The Cost’s appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
Issue One: Whether an exception to the warrant requirement permitted the warrantless, non-consensual entry into the Cost’s home?
The court discussed the legal principles relevant to this issue and stated
Police officers may enter a home without a warrant under exigent circumstances. See Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403, 126 S. Ct. 1943, 164 L. Ed. 2d 650 (2006) (“[L]aw enforcement officers may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.”). Exigent circumstances exist where there is “danger to the lives of officers or others.” Coles, 437 F.3d at 366. “We evaluate whether exigent circumstances existed by an objective standard; the subjective intent of the officer is irrelevant.” United States v. Mallory, 765 F.3d 373, 383 (3d Cir. 2014).[iv]
The court then examined the facts that were relevant to this issue. First, the court noted that the police received a 911 call that stated that a male and female were in a verbal domestic dispute and a woman was heard yelling, “Help!” Additionally, children were present and heard crying. Second, when the officers arrived, they did not hear any yelling. They knocked on the front and side doors for 10-15 minutes and nobody answered the doors. Third, the officers were concerned that there was someone inside that needed aid. They also contacted their police chief who agreed that there may be someone inside in need of help.
The court of appeals then held
Considering the totality of these circumstances, [Officer] Ranakoski and [Officer] McMorrow “reasonably . . . believe[d] that someone [was] in imminent danger,” so their entry into Plaintiffs’ home was justified without first obtaining a warrant. Couden v. Duffy, 446 F.3d 483, 496 (3d Cir. 2006) (quotation marks and citation omitted); see also United States v. Black, 482 F.3d 1035, 1040 (9th Cir. 2007) (noting that “the exigencies of domestic abuse cases present dangers that . . . may override considerations of [Fourth Amendment] privacy”); . . . “); United States v. Brown, 64 F.3d 1083, 1086 (7th Cir. 1995) (observing “outcries would justify entry“); cf. Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103, 118, 126 S. Ct. 1515, 164 L. Ed. 2d 208 (2006) (“No question . . . reasonably could be [raised] about the authority of the police to enter a dwelling to protect a resident from domestic violence[.]”).[v]
Thus, the court found that exigent circumstances to enter the Cost’s residence without a warrant were present; therefore, the officer’s entry was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and the unlawful search claim failed.
Issue Two: Whether probable cause was present to believe a crime was being committed inside the residence?
The court first examined the legal principles relevant to this issue and stated
Probable cause exists if, “at the moment the arrest was made . . . the facts and circumstances within [the officers’] knowledge and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information were sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing that [the suspect] had committed or was committing an offense.” Wright v. City of Phila., 409 F.3d 595, 602 (3d Cir. 2005) (alterations in original) (quoting Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91, 85 S. Ct. 223, 13 L. Ed. 2d 142 (1964)). Probable cause “does not require that the officer have evidence sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Zimmerman, 873 F.3d at 418 (quotation marks and citation omitted), or “that officers correctly resolve conflicting evidence or that their determinations of credibility, were, in retrospect, accurate,” Dempsey v. Bucknell Univ., 834 F.3d 457, 467 (3d Cir. 2016) (citation omitted). In this context, “we view all such facts and assess whether any reasonable jury could conclude that those facts, considered in their totality in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, did not demonstrate a ‘fair probability’ that a crime occurred.” Id. at 468.[vi]
If probable cause is present, the plaintiff’s unlawful seizure, false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution claims will fail.
To determine if probable cause was present, the court looked at the crime which the Cost’s were suspected of committing. The court stated
Under Pennsylvania law, “[a] person is guilty of disorderly conduct if, with intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, he . . . creates a hazardous or physically offensive condition by any act which serves no legitimate purpose of the actor.” 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5503(a)(4). “Public” means “affecting or likely to affect persons in a place to which the public or a substantial group has access . . . [including] any neighborhood.” Id. § 5503(c).[vii]
The court then noted that the police received a 911 call that stated there was a domestic dispute that was loud enough to be heard across the street at, what was determined to be, the Cost’s residence. The court stated that this conduct caused “public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm” and “serve[d] no legitimate purpose.”[viii] The court held that this provided the officers probable cause to believe a crime was being committed when they arrived at the Cost’s residence.
Additionally, Rought, one of the parties present during the dispute, told the officers that Cost, Sr. was arguing with his daughter about a cell phone. Rought said she took her children upstairs to get away from Rought and did not answer the door because she did not want to leave her children. The court then held that this information, combined with the 911 call and Cost, Sr.’s refusal to provide his identification, provided a reasonable officer with probable cause to believe the offense of disorderly conduct had been committed. Thus, the court held
The presence of probable cause defeats Plaintiffs’ unlawful seizure, false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution claims.[ix]
Therefore, the court appeals affirmed the district court’s order granting summary judgment for all defendants.
[i] No. 20-3120 (3rd Cir. Decided June 3, 2021)
[ii] Id. at 2-3
[iii] Id. at fn. 3
[iv] Id. at 6-7 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 7-8 (emphasis added)
[vi] Id. at 8-9 (emphasis added)
[vii] Id. at 9