On April 7, 2023, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Lucibella v. Town of Ocean Ridge[i], which serves as excellent review of the law related to the curtilage of residence and it’s extent of Fourth Amendment protection.  The relevant facts of Lucibella are as follows:

On October 22, 2016, Lucibella and Steven Wohlfiel, an offduty lieutenant for the Ocean Ridge Police Department, met at Lucibella’s house to socialize. After attending a cocktail party at a neighbor’s house, Lucibella and Wohlfiel returned to Lucibella’s house and sat on Lucibella’s backyard patio with alcoholic beverages. While sitting and discussing “family issues,” Wohlfiel suddenly fired his handgun five times into the ground around ten to twelve feet in front of him. Wohlfiel then placed the firearm on a table, and Lucibella picked up the firearm and put it on his lap.

Soon thereafter, the Ocean Ridge Police Department received a 911 call reporting shots in the area. Officer Ermeri responded to the call. Unsure of the gunshots’ origin, he spoke to a group of people walking in the area, who directed him to the area of Lucibella’s and his neighbor’s homes. Officer Ermeri first investigated the house next to Lucibella’s but left after he observed that the situation appeared normal. Sergeant William Hallahan, who also responded to the 911 call, joined Officer Ermeri, and the two officers approached Lucibella’s backyard, looked through the wrought iron gate, and saw Lucibella and Wohlfiel sitting on the patio. The patio area was dark with no outside lighting. Officer Plesnik, another responder, met Sergeant Hallahan and Officer Ermeri outside the gate but left two or three seconds later. Officer Plesnik left because she knew Lucibella and Wohlfiel and “thought at the time [that the officers were] wasting [their] time.” Officer Ermeri asked if Lucibella and Wohlfiel had heard any gunfire, and Wohlfiel responded: “get the fuck out of here.” Sergeant Hallahan took that response to mean that “they didn’t see anything” and, because he “didn’t see anything out of the ordinary,” Hallahan left too. Officer Ermeri, however, entered Lucibella’s backyard through the gate without a warrant and without permission.

As Officer Ermeri approached the men, he saw shell casings on the ground and told Lucibella that he saw Lucibella sitting on a firearm. Officer Ermeri radioed Sergeant Hallahan and told him that he located the weapon, and Sergeant Hallahan and Officer Plesnik reported to Lucibella’s backyard Officer Ermeri asked Lucibella about the firearm, and Lucibella gave it to Officer Ermeri without resistance. Lucibella also emptied his pockets and told Officer Ermeri that he did not want to speak with him and asked him to “get off [his] property”.[ii]

Lucibella’s backyard was surrounded by tall hedges and a five-foot concrete wall and was accessible through a short, wrought iron gate. Officer Ermeri recognized Lucibella from prior, friendly interactions and knew that Lucibella was the town commissioner. Although Officer Ermeri knew Wohlfiel as a superior officer with the Ocean Ridge Police Department, he did not recognize Wohlfiel until he entered the backyard and approached the men.[iii]

Lucibella became involved in a physical altercation with the officer and was ultimately convicted by a jury for misdemeanor battery on Officer Ermeri.  Lucibella then filed suit in federal court and alleged that the officers violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment when they entered his backyard without a warrant.[1]  The officers filed a motion for qualified immunity and summary judgment.  The district court denied the officers’ motion, and the officers appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

In order to determine if the officers are entitled to qualified immunity, the court first looks at whether the officers violated the Fourth Amendment.  If the officers violated Fourth Amendment, the court will then examine if the law was clearly established such that a reasonable officer in the same situation would have known he was violating the Fourth Amendment.

The court of appeals first examined whether the officers violated Lucibella’s rights under the Fourth Amendment when they entered his yard, which was surrounded by a wall with a gate, without a warrant,

The officers argued that, while they did not have a warrant, exigent circumstances were present and this justified the warrantless entry into the backyard.  Specifically, the officers argued that they “had an objectively reasonable basis for believing that medical assistance was needed, that persons were in danger, or both when they entered Lucibella’s backyard.”[iv]

The court of appeals examined the legal principles that are relevant to warrantless entry and stated

W]hen it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is first among equals.” Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1, 6, 133 S. Ct. 1409, 185 L. Ed. 2d 495 (2013). “At the Amendment’s ‘very core'” is the right of a person “to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.” Id. (quotation omitted). This protection extends to a home’s “curtilage,” which is “the area immediately surrounding and associated with the home.” Id.[v]

Thus, the curtilage, or area immediately surrounding the home, is given the same Fourth Amendment protection as the inside of a person’s home.

The court next examined the legal principles that apply to the exigent circumstance exception to the warrant requirement.  The court stated

Warrantless searches of a home’s curtilage are presumptively unreasonable. United States v. Walker, 799 F.3d 1361, 1363 (11th Cir. 2015). This general rule is “subject only to a few jealously and carefully drawn exceptions.” McClish v. Nugent, 483 F.3d 1231, 1240 (11th Cir. 2007) (quotation omitted). One such exception is made for “exigent circumstances.” Id.The exigent circumstances exception recognizes a warrantless entry by criminal law enforcement officials may be legal when there is compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.” United States v. Holloway, 290 F.3d 1331, 1334 (11th Cir. 2002) (quotation omitted).

The most urgent of these exigencies—known as the emergency aid exception—excuses police compliance with the warrant requirement in order “to protect or preserve life.” Id. at 1335; Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 460, 131 S. Ct. 1849, 179 L. Ed. 2d 865 (2011). “Under the ’emergency aid’ exception, ‘officers may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.‘” United States v. Timmann, 741 F.3d 1170, 1178 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Brigham City, Utah, v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403, 126 S. Ct. 1943, 164 L. Ed. 2d 650 (2006)). “In order for the exception to apply, officers must have an objectively reasonable belief that someone inside is ‘seriously injured or threatened with such injury,’ and is in need of immediate aid.” Id. (quoting Brigham City, 547 U.S. at 403-04). “The officer’s subjective motivation is irrelevant.” Id. (quotation omitted). And “[t]he government bears the burden of demonstrating that the exception applies.” Id. at 1178-79.[vi]

Officer Ermeri argued that the emergency aid exception justified the entry into the back yard.  It is important to note, that at this stage of the litigation (the motion for qualified immunity), if facts are in dispute and there is not video evidence that contradicts the plaintiff’s version of events, the court must view the facts in a light most favorable to the plaintiff.  The plaintiff alleged that, at the time the officers entered, there was no tumultuous or chaotic scene, no violence in progress, no person in need of medical aid, and no evidence visible to the officer that this was house where the gunfire occurred.  While Officer Ermeri alleged he could see the gun from outside the gate, Lucibella alleged that he did not see the gun or shell casings until after he entered the backyard.

In light of the facts above, viewed most favorably to Lucibella, the court concluded

[I]t was not objectively reasonable for Officer Ermeri to believe that someone inside of Lucibella’s house or in Lucibella’s backyard was in danger or in need of immediate aid.[vii]

Therefore, the court held that the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement did not justify entry into Lucibella’s backyard, and as such, the officers violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment.

The court of appeals next examined whether the law was clearly established such that another reasonable officer in this situation would have known he was violating the Fourth Amendment by entering Lucibella’s backyard without a warrant.

The court noted the legal principles relevant to this issue and stated

The touchstone of qualified immunity is notice.” Moore v. Pederson, 806 F.3d 1036, 1046 (11th Cir. 2015). “The violation of a constitutional right is clearly established if a reasonable official would understand that his conduct violates that right.” Id. at 1046-47. As an initial matter, the Fourth Amendment and our caselaw clearly establish that the warrantless search of a home’s curtilage is presumptively unreasonable. See Walker, 799 F.3d at 1363. Even so, we have repeatedly ruled that the emergency aid exception is met when an officer enters a home “to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.” Timmann, 741 F.3d at 1178 (quoting Brigham City, 547 U.S. at 403). And we have explained that, “[i]n order for the exception to apply, officers must have an objectively reasonable belief that someone inside is seriously injured or threatened with such injury, and is in need of immediate aid.Id. (quotation omitted). The parameters of this exception were well-established at the time of this incident: “the police [must] reasonably believe an emergency exists which calls for an immediate response to protect citizens from imminent danger.” Holloway, 290 F.3d at 1337.[viii]

The court then noted that, viewing the facts in a light most favorable to Lucibella, there were no facts indicating that anyone was injured or in imminent danger.  The court noted that two of the officers left the house after speaking to Lucibella and Wohlfeil through the gate because they determined that everything appeared normal.

Therefore, the court of appeals held that the officers violated clearly established law when they entered into Lucibella’s backyard and patio, without a warrant or justification for a warrantless entry.

Thus, Officers Ermeri and Plesnik were not entitled to qualified immunity for their entry into Lucibella’s backyard.

Practice Pointers:

This case does not mean that officers cannot ever enter a backyard without a warrant.  For example, in the Supreme Court case Brigham City v. Stuart[ix], officers received a call of a loud party at a house at 3:00 a.m.  Officers arrived and heard yelling from inside the house.  As they walked up the driveway, they saw what appeared to be two underage persons drinking alcohol in the backyard.  The officers walked into the backyard and observed, through a screen door and window, a person punch another person in the face, and the victim spit blood into the kitchen sink.  The officers entered the residence through the screen door without a warrant or consent and announced their presence.  The Supreme Court held

  • The officers’ entry here was plainly reasonable under the circumstances. Given the tumult at the house when they arrived, it was obvious that knocking on the front door would have been futile.
  • In light of the disturbance they observed in the kitchen, the officers had an objectively reasonable basis for believing both that the injured adult might need help and that the violence was just beginning. Nothing in the Fourth Amendment required them to wait until another blow rendered someone unconscious, semiconscious, or worse before entering.
  • The manner of their entry was also reasonable, since nobody heard the first announcement of their presence, and it was only after theannouncing officer stepped into the kitchen and announced himself again that the tumult subsided. That announcement was at least equivalent to a knock on the screen door and, under the circumstances, there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment’s knock-and-announce rule.
  • Furthermore, once the announcement was made, the officers were free to enter; it would serve no purpose to make them stand dumbly at the door awaiting a response while those within brawled on, oblivious to their presence.
  • Police may enter a home without a warrant when they have an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant is seriously injured or imminently threatened with such injury.[x]

 

Note:  Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.

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Citations

[1] Lucibella also alleged that officers used excessive force but that will not be discussed in this article.

[i] No. 22-11056 (11th Cir. Decided April 7, 2023 Non-argument)

[ii] Id. at 1-4

[iii] Id. at Fn. 2

[iv] Id. at 9

[v] Id. at 9-10 (emphasis added)

[vi] Id. at 10-11 (emphasis added)

[vii] Id. at 12

[viii] Id. at 14 (emphasis added)

[ix] 547 U.S. 398 (2006)

[x] Id.

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