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It’s a simple enough scenario. A police department dispatcher receives a 9-1-1 call, but the caller hangs up as soon as the dispatcher asks what the nature of the emergency is. The dispatcher calls back, and there’s no answer. The dispatcher sends an officer to the location of the 9-1-1 call to determine that everything is OK.
After responding to the location, knocking on the door, and checking the exterior of the premises, no one answers. What’s the officer to do? Are there options? Is one of the options to break down the door to conduct a well-being check?
Although this is a simple and an all-too common scenario, the response can vary widely. A typical assumption, however, is that the person who made the call is unable to answer the call back due to some sort of exigent circumstance—medical or otherwise. But is the fact that no one answers the phone or door after making a 9-1-1 call without more evidence enough to justify breaking down the door?
One thing is certain: There’s no per se rule for all 9-1-1 hang-up calls. Like most cases analyzing the reasonableness of officers’ actions, it all depends on the specific facts officers are confronted with.
Johnson v. City of Memphis
In Johnson v. City of Memphis,1 the officers’ actions in responding to a hang-up 9-1-1 were called into question by the widow of a man who was shot by Memphis, Tenn., police officers. At approximately 9 p.m. on April 22, 2004, two officers responded to the Johnson residence due to a 9-1-1 hang-up call. The first arriving officer approached the house and saw the front door wide open. After advising the dispatcher of the open door, he announced his presence. When he received no response, he entered with his gun drawn just as the second officer arrived on scene. He, too, drew his weapon upon seeing his partner’s gun out of its holster and followed him inside. Unbeknownst to the officers, a second call was received by the dispatcher.
One of the officers saw someone moving down the hallway in front of them. The officers agreed to conduct a protective sweep of the residence. As they turned a corner, Xavier Johnson suddenly appeared. The officers asked him why he didn’t respond to the officers’ calls. Instead of answering them, Johnson jumped on one of the officers. The officer pushed Johnson back into a wall. Johnson lunged forward and grabbed the officer’s gun hand. The officer yelled to his partner that Johnson was going for his gun. After yelling at Johnson to get down several times, the second officer fired two shots at Johnson. Not deterred, Johnson threw the first officer into a wall and charged at the shooting officer. The officer retreated, yelled at Johnson to get down, and continued to fire. However, Johnson was able to reach him and struck him with enough force to throw the officer against a wall, knocking him out. When the officer came to, Johnson was dead.
The officers later learned that Mrs. Johnson had called 9-1-1 because Johnson, who was bipolar, was off his medication. She hung up because she needed to leave the house. She called a few minutes later to advise the dispatcher of the medical problem but by then, it was too late.
Mrs. Johnson filed a civil rights law suit against the officers and the city of Memphis. After several pretrial motions, only one claim against the City under the Fourth Amendment remained. The city filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by the district court. Mrs. Johnson filed an appeal.
The crux of the appeal centered on the reasonableness of the officers’ warrantless entry into the home. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reiterated that the “‘chief evil’ that the Fourth Amendment protects against is the physical entry of the home,” adding that warrantless entries into the home are “presumptively unreasonable.”2 It also noted that there are exceptions to the warrant requirement, one of which is “exigent circumstances.” “Exigent circumstances arise when an emergency situation demands immediate police action that excuses the need for a warrant.”3 That being said, “the government bears a ‘heavy burden’ to demonstrate such an exigency occurred.”4
The appellate court stated that it has repeatedly recognized four situations that may rise to the level of exigency:
• Hot pursuit of a fleeing felon;
• Imminent destruction of evidence;
• The need to prevent a suspect’s escape; and
• A risk of danger to police or others.
It also acknowledged that the Supreme Court added another situation that could qualify as an exigent circumstance—the need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury. In recognizing the latter situation, it stated that “[o]fficers do not need ironclad proof of ‘a likely serious life-threatening’ injury to invoke the emergency aid exception.”5 Instead, “the police’s entry must be based on an objectively reasonable belief, given the information available at the time of entry, that a person within the house was ‘in need of immediate aid.’”6
The appellate court held that the combination of a 9-1-1 hang-up call, an unanswered return call, and an open door with no response from within the residence was enough to satisfy the exigency requirement. It found that the “whole point of the 9-1-1 system is to provide people in need of emergency assistance an expeditious way to request it. Indeed, in many communities, the use of 9-1-1 for any purpose other than to report an emergency or to request emergency assistance is at least a misdemeanor offense.”7
“Because a 9-1-1 call is by its nature an appeal for help in an emergency, the emergency aid exception best fits the attitude of police responding to a 9-1-1 call under the circumstances present here. . . . The officers’ actions—announcing their presence and, after receiving no answer, entering in order to perform a cursory search for any endangered or injured persons—was an objectively reasonable purpose.”8
The following cases found the officers’ warrantless entries to be lawful. In United States v. Porter,9 police officers responded to a residential security system alarm. Still not satisfied that everything was okay even after speaking with the neighbors, the officers entered the home through an unlocked rear door to perform a protective sweep and determine if anyone needed assistance. The officers located drugs in the home and arrests were made. The court found the entry was reasonable.
In Hanson v. Dane County,10 police officers received a 9-1-1 hang up call and no one answered the return call. Police officers responded and entered an open garage without consent or a warrant. Subsequently, an arrest followed. The district court granted the officers summary judgment because the court found the entry to be lawful because it was reasonable for officer to believe that someone inside needed police assistance.
The following cases illustrate circumstances in which the officers’ actions were deemed unreasonable. In Kerman v. City of New York,11 the appellate court held that an anonymous 9-1-1 call wasn’t a sufficient basis for the officers’ conclusion that exigent circumstances existed to justify entry without a warrant, due to the unreliable nature of the anonymous 9-1-1 call.
In United States v. Meixner,12 a police officer responded to a 9-1-1 hang up call and upon arrival, knocked on the door and saw two people inside intoxicated. The male refused to allow the officer inside; the officer could see a woman crying inside who also told the officer to leave. The officer entered the home, searched the house for anyone else in need of assistance and found guns inside a bedroom. The court found the entry to be unlawful because the woman could have been asked to step outside and there was no evidence from which an inference could be drawn that other people inside were injured and in need of immediate aid.
The Bottom Line
To justify a warrantless entry under the emergency aid doctrine following a 9-1-1 hang-up call, it must be shown that a reasonably prudent officer under the circumstances would have believed that an emergency existed, as supported by specific and articulable facts. The entry and any ensuing search must be confined to the exigency justifying the initial warrantless entry. Once the emergency dissipates, the officer is no longer justified by the doctrine to remain at the location or to continue a search of the premises. If faced with a situation of this type, officers should consider the totality of the circumstances and thoroughly document the information that was known (or believed) at the time of entry.
1. No. 09-5046, 2010 WL 3305264 (6th Cir., August 24, 2010).
2. Johnson at *2 (citing Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 585-86 (1980)).
3. Id. (citing United States v. Radka, 904 F.2d 357, 361 (6th Cir. 1990)
4. Id. (citing Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740, 750 (1984)).
5. Johnson at *3 (citing Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006)).
6. Id. (citing Michigan v. Fisher, 558 U.S. ___, 130 S.Ct. 546, 548 (2009)).
9. 288 F.Supp.2d 716 (W.D.Va. 2003).
10. 599 F.Supp.2d 1046, 1053 (W.D.Wis. 2009).
11. 261 F.3d 229 (2nd Cir. 2001).
12. 128 F.Supp.2d 1070 (E.D.Mich. 2001).