On July 16, 2021, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Sanders[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to exigent home entry at a domestic dispute. The relevant facts of Sanders are as follows:
On February 16, 2018, just before 10:00 a.m., N.R. contacted her grandmother and said that her mother, Karina LaFrancois, and her mother’s boyfriend, “Kenny” Sanders, were “fighting really bad” and that “they need[ed] someone to come.” N.R. was eleven years old at the time. N.R.’s grandmother called 911 and relayed to the operator that she had been told an altercation was occurring at LaFrancois’ house. N.R.’s grandmother also told the 911 operator that she had trouble understanding N.R. and that she did not know if any weapons were involved or whether the fight was verbal or physical. Additionally, N.R.’s grandmother informed the operator that two additional minor children were inside the residence, ages seven and one.
The Dubuque Police Department dispatched officers to the LaFrancois residence on a report of a domestic disturbance. Officer Joel Cross arrived first on scene with Officer Tom Pregler close behind. Additional officers subsequently arrived as well. When Officer Cross arrived at the residence, he saw N.R. “acting excited” and gesturing through an upstairs window. After reporting his observations to Officer Pregler, the two officers knocked on the front door. LaFrancois came outside to talk to the officers. LaFrancois was visibly upset and unstable. The officers observed red marks on LaFrancois’ face and neck. Despite her obvious emotional state and the visible injuries, LaFrancois told the officers that everything was okay. Officer Cross told LaFrancois that he understood that N.R. had heard the disturbance and contacted law enforcement. LaFrancois became concerned and responded, “Do not tell him that she called you guys.”
Officer Pregler told LaFrancois that the officers needed to talk to Sanders. LaFrancois made clear that she did not want the officers to go inside the house. She offered to have Sanders speak with the officers outside. The officers initially assented to allowing LaFrancois to go inside and get Sanders. However, when LaFrancois opened the door to the residence, the officers heard crying inside. After hearing the crying, the officers decided to enter the house to make sure that everyone was safe. They opened the door and saw Sanders and LaFrancois standing just inside the door and a crying infant located in a nearby playpen.
As soon as the officers entered the home, Sanders became noncompliant, uncooperative, and argumentative with the officers. When Officer Cross began to go upstairs to check on N.R. and N.R.’s brother, who was also upstairs, Sanders attempted to block him from going upstairs. The officers directed Sanders to sit on the couch. Officer Cross found N.R. distressed and crying. She told Officer Cross that Sanders “had a gun out,” that it “was downstairs,” and that she thought it was located in one of the drawers below the “big mirror.” Officer Cross went back downstairs and looked through the drawers where N.R. indicated the gun might be. When he did not find a gun, Officer Cross returned upstairs to talk to N.R. again. N.R. admitted that she did not see Sanders with a gun, but during the fight with Sanders, she had heard her mother yelling, “Put the gun down! Put the gun down!” N.R. said that it sounded like LaFrancois was being choked during the fight.
During these events, LaFrancois and Sanders had been separated, with LaFrancois outside and Sanders on the couch. Officer Cross then went outside to speak to LaFrancois. LaFrancois had been texting Sanders, informing him that she was telling the officers that nothing happened. Officer Cross pointedly asked LaFrancois where the gun was located. LaFrancois initially denied there was a gun but quickly expressed concern that Sanders would find out that she had been talking to the officers. LaFrancois asked if she could be arrested instead of Sanders. After further questioning, LaFrancois admitted that she believed Sanders had a gun while the couple were arguing and that it could be in the couch. Officer Cross went back inside the residence, asked Sanders to get off the couch where he had been directed to sit, and discovered a Smith & Wesson .380 caliber pistol in the couch cushions.
Sanders was arrested on state domestic assault charges…[ii]
He was subsequently charged under federal law. Sanders filed a motion to suppress and argued that the officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they entered his residence without a warrant. The district court denied the motion and Sanders pleaded guilty with the right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress.
The issue on appeal was whether the officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they entered Sanders’ residence without a warrant.
The court of appeals first noted the relevant legal principles and stated
The Fourth Amendment‘s warrant requirement, however, is subject to certain exceptions. In Caniglia, 593 U.S. at , 141 S.Ct. at 1598, the Supreme Court held that there is no standalone community caretaker doctrine that justifies warrantless searches and seizures in the home…
Because the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness, the Supreme Court has recognized certain exceptions to the warrant requirement. Luer v. Clinton, 987 F.3d 1160, 1165 (8th Cir. 2021) (per curiam). For example, in Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 126 S. Ct. 1943, 164 L. Ed. 2d 650 (2006), the Supreme Court recognized that an officer may enter a home without a warrant if he has an objectively reasonable basis to believe that entry is necessary “to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.” Id. at 403. [iii]
The court then examined the facts of the case to determine if the “emergency aid” exigent circumstance allowed officers to enter Sander’s residence without a warrant.
First, officers were dispatched to a domestic dispute that was communicated to 911 by the grandmother of child who was on-scene and witnessing the dispute. The child called the grandmother and the grandmother called 911. Second, when officers arrived, they observed a child in an upstairs window “acting excitedly and gesturing” at the officers. Third, LaFrancois, the domestic violence victim, came outside and met with the officers. Fourth, she told officers that everything was okay, despite visible red marks on her face and neck. Fifth, she acted upset and appeared unstable. Sixth, she did not want officers to enter the residence and asked if she could go get Sanders to come outside to talk. Seventh, LaFrancois did not want the officers to tell Sanders that her daughter is the person who reported the dispute. Lastly, the officers heard a child crying inside the residence. At the point the officers heard the crying child, they decided to enter the residence “to provide emergency assistance to anyone who might have been injured and to protect the children, who they knew were inside, from imminent injury.”[iv]
Based on the above facts, the court of appeals stated
Under these circumstances, we are satisfied that the officers had an objectively reasonable basis to enter LaFrancois’ house without a warrant. Although the presence of a domestic violence suspect in a home with children cannot alone justify a warrantless entry, here the officers were confronted with “facts indicating that the suspect was a threat to the child[ren] or others.” Smith v. Kansas City Police Dep’t, 586 F.3d 576, 580 (8th Cir. 2009);[v] …
The record establishes that the officers had reason to believe that a domestic violence suspect was inside the home with children. When LaFrancois opened the door, the suspect was still in the residence and officers heard crying coming from inside. Considering the totality of the facts known to the officers prior to their entry of the home, the officers reasonably believed that entry was necessary to either provide emergency assistance to the child who was heard crying or to prevent an imminent assault on the daughter who had reported the incident.[vi]
Thus, the court held the entry into Sander’s residence was lawful under the exigent circumstance exception to the warrant requirement.
The court also noted that upon entering the residence, the scope of the encounter was also reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Particularly, the officers separated LaFrancois and Sanders and located the child who reported the incident, N.R. N.R. subsequently told the officers that she heard her mother repeatedly yelling for Sanders to “put the gun down.” N.R. told the officers where she thought the gun was located. Officers also spoke to LaFrancois about the gun. She said the gun might be located on the sofa. Officers then searched only the locations where they were told the gun might be located and found it in the sofa. The court stated
Exigent circumstances justified the officers’ efforts to locate and secure the gun. United States v. Henderson, 553 F.3d 1163, 1165 (8th Cir. 2009) (per curiam) (“[B]ecause domestic disturbances are highly volatile and involve large risks and because the police officers had reason to believe that a loaded gun was in the bedroom, we think it plain that exigent circumstances justified their effort to secure the weapon.”).[vii]
As such, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] No. 19-1497 (8th Cir. Decided July 16, 2021)
[ii] Id. at 2-5
[iii] Id. at 7-8 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 8
[v] Id. at 8-9
[vi] Id. at 9-10
[vii] Id. at 10-11