On September 21, 2021, the Supreme Court of Georgia of decided Tidwell v. State[i], which serves as an excellent review of constitutional law as it pertains to exigent, warrantless entry into private premises.
In Tidwell, on January 5, 2017, an anonymous caller contacted Forsyth County 911 and stated that he had seen a body at an abandoned mobile home about two hours prior. The caller stated that the body was located by the back door of the residence and that it was wrapped in blankets. While the caller did not know the address of the mobile home, he gave a sufficient description such that deputies believed it to be Guice’s mobile home, a location known for various disturbances. Responding deputies arrived and noticed pry marks on the door. The door was also unlocked. They entered the residence without a warrant and found Guice’s dead body under a pile of blankets by the back door. Officers exited the mobile home, notified dispatch of their discovery, and obtained a search warrant.[ii]
One of Tidwell’s issues on appeal was that the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress the evidence that resulted from the warrantless entry into the mobile home. The trial court, after an evidentiary hearing on the motion to suppress, held that the entry was justified in light of “the objectively reasonable basis that someone inside may be in need of immediate aid.” Tidwell argued that there were no exigent circumstances for the warrantless entry because a report that a “body” was present would indicate that a person was dead and thus, entry to provide emergency aid or medical treatment would not be reasonable.
Ultimately, the case went before the Supreme Court of Georgia. The Court first noted the relevant legal principles and stated
One such exception to the Fourth Amendment‘s warrant requirement, as recognized by the United States Supreme Court, is “that the Fourth Amendment does not bar police officers from making warrantless entries and searches when they reasonably believe that a person within is in need of immediate aid.” Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U. S. 385, 392 (I) (98 SCt 2408, 57 LE2d 290) (1978). This is so because “[t]he need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury is justification for what would be otherwise illegal absent an exigency or emergency.“ (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Id. ”Accordingly, law 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.“ Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U. S. 398, 403 (II) (126 SCt 1943, 164 LE2d 650) (2006).[iii]
Tidwell argued that the anonymous report of a “body” in the residence was insufficient to provide the deputies a reasonable belief that a person inside was in need of immediate aid. However, the Court explained
[O]fficers do not need ironclad proof of a likely serious, life-threatening injury to invoke the emergency aid exception.” (Punctuation omitted.) Michigan v. Fisher, 558 U. S. 45, 49 (130 SCt 546, 175 LE2d 410) (2009). The test, as explained by the Supreme Court, “is not what [officers subjectively] believed, but whether there was ‘an objectively reasonable basis for believing’ that medical assistance was needed, or persons were in danger.” Id. (quoting Brigham City, supra, 547 U. S. at 406 and Mincey, supra, 437 U. S. at 392).[iv]
The Court then applied the legal principles above, to the facts of Tidwell’s case. First, deputies received a tip about a possible dead body inside a mobile home. Second, deputies knew of a history of verbal disputes at the location. Third, deputies observed pry marks near the door handle. Fourth, deputies knocked on the front door and received no response. Fifth, they noticed the front door was unsecured.
Based upon the above facts, the Court held that reasonable deputies could believe that “a person inside the mobile home was “seriously injured or imminently threatened with such injury.”[v] Therefore, the Court held that the trial court did not err in denying the motion to suppress.
[i] S21A0739 (Ga. Decided September 21, 2021)
[ii] Id. at 2-3
[iii] Id. at 11-12 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 12 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 13