Editor’s note: Laura Scarry has been our Legal Eagle author since the magazine started more than six years ago. Unfortunately, she will no longer be able to write a regular column because she needs to put a priority on family time. Although we’ll miss her greatly, we applaud her decision to put family first. Laura has always provided read-it/use-it information that’s been invaluable to our readers and we thank her for the great service she’s provided to LEOs across the country. Stay tuned for the next chapter in Legal Eagle!
In Ryburn v. Huff,1 the U.S. Supreme Court recently decided that police officers don’t violate the Fourth Amendment by entering a residence without a warrant when the homeowner demonstrates unusual behavior leading the officers to believe they’re in danger. This case involved police officers investigating a rumor that a high school student threatened to “shoot up” the school.2
After receiving a call from the school, officers from the Burbank, Calif., Police Department met with the principal, who reported that she learned of the rumor that the student, Vincent Huff, made the threat in a letter. The principal also reported that parents of several students kept their children home after learning of the rumor. Due to her concern for student safety, the principal requested that the officers investigate the alleged threat.
The officers conducted several interviews and learned that Vincent had been absent from school for two days and was the victim of student bullying. They also learned that one of Vincent’s classmates believed that Vincent was capable of carrying out the purported threat. The officers had received prior training on school violence, and they knew that these were indicators of the potential for school violence.
The officers decided to interview Vincent and drove to his house. Officers knocked on the door and announced their office several times. No one answered the door or acknowledged the knocks. The officers called the home telephone. The officers could hear the phone ringing, but no one answered.
Officers then called Vincent’s mother on her cell phone. When she answered, the officer identified himself and asked her where she was. She stated that she was inside the residence. The officer asked where Vincent was, and she responded that he was inside the house as well. The officer then informed her that Burbank police officers were outside her residence and asked to speak with her. She hung up.
After a moment or two, Vincent and his mom walked out of the house and stood on the front steps. The officers informed Vincent of the reason for their visit, and he responded in disbelief. The officers asked Vincent’s mom if they could continue their discussion inside but she refused. The officers thought this was unusual. They also found it odd that Vincent’s mother never asked them why they were there.
The officers next asked Mrs. Huff whether there were any guns inside the residence. Mrs. Huff immediately turned and ran back into the house. Fearing for their safety, the officers entered the house with Vincent in between them. Once inside, they were met by Vincent’s father who advised them that they had no authority to be there. The officers remained inside the house for no more than 5–10 minutes, where they continued to talk to Vincent and his mom. The officers eventually concluded that the rumor was false and left the residence. No search was conducted on Vincent or his parents, nor was the residence searched.
Trial & Appellate Opinions
The Huffs filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court alleging that the officers violated their rights under the Fourth Amendment when they entered their home without a warrant. The case went to a bench trial where the district court entered judgment in favor of the officers on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court found that Mrs. Huff’s strange behavior coupled with the information obtained by the officers at the high school could have led reasonable police officers to believe that weapons were inside and that they or someone in the residence were in danger particularly because the circumstances had rapidly evolved.
The Huffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and a divided panel reversed the district court’s holding that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. The majority recognized that “police officers are permitted to enter into a home without a warrant if they reasonably believe that the immediate entry is necessary to protect themselves or others from serious harm, even if the officers lack probable cause to believe that a crime has been or is about to be committed.”3 But, the majority found that the facts didn’t support that proposition. Instead, the majority found that Mrs. Huff simply “asserted her right to end her conversation with the officers and returned to her home.”4
Supreme Court Opinion
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit. In doing so, it recited its recent precedents: officers are permitted to enter a home when they have “an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant is . . . imminently threatened with [serious injury].”5 “The need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury is justification for what would be otherwise illegal, absent an exigency or emergency.”6
The Supreme Court chided the Ninth Circuit’s dissection of the events into distinct and discrete acts. “As the panel majority saw things, it was irrelevant that the Huffs did not respond when the officers knocked on the door and announced their presence and when they called the home phone because the Huffs had no legal obligation to respond to a knock on the door or to answer the phone. The majority attributed no significance to the fact that, when the officers finally reached Mrs. Huff on her cell phone, she abruptly hung up in the middle of their conversation. And, according to the majority, the officers should not have been concerned by Mrs. Huff’s reaction when they asked her if there were any guns in the house. . . .”7 The Supreme Court pointed out that “it is a matter of common sense that a combination of events each of which is mundane when viewed in isolation may paint an alarming picture.”8
The Court also noted that the Ninth Circuit impermissibly engaged in second-guessing the officers’ actions with the benefit of hindsight and calm deliberation. It reminded us that reasonableness “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable police officer on the scene, rather that with the 20/20 vision of hindsight and that the calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving.”9
Thus, according to the Supreme Court, officers in the position of those in the instant case “could have come to the conclusion that the Fourth Amendment permitted them to enter the Huff residence if there was an objectively reasonable basis for fearing that violence was imminent.” As such, the Court reversed the Ninth Circuit and remanded the case for entry of judgment in favor of the officers.
The Bottom Line
Ryburn v. Huff is yet another example of why it’s so important for officers to articulate all of the facts that form the basis of their actions. The simplest way to do that is to write each fact and circumstance in your police reports. That way, when it comes time to testifying in a deposition or in court in a civil or criminal matter, it becomes an exercise of reciting those facts instead of trying to regurgitate events that officers may have forgotten and are unable to recall. In the latter circumstance, officers may fail to articulate the totality of the circumstances and risk facing an allegation of violating the Fourth Amendment.
1. No. 11-208, ____ S.Ct. ____, 2012 WL 171121 (January 23, 2012).
2. Id. at *1.
3. Id. at *2.
5. Id. at *3 (citing Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 400 (2006)).
7. Id. at *4.
8. Id. at *5.
9. Id. (citing Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396-97, (1989)).
Do not construe this column as legal advice. Each police officer should consult with an attorney in their jurisdiction for legal advice on any specific issue.