In the July 2006 issue ofLaw Officer, we discussed the Supreme Court s decision in Brigham City v. Stuart. On Dec. 7, 2009, the court rendered another opinion similar toBrigham City, holding that where officers are confronted with a medical emergency, a warrantless entry into a residence does not violate the Fourth Amendment. Here, we revisit the issue of police officers conducting a warrantless entry into a residence under exigent circumstances.
In Michigan v. Fisher, two officers from Brownstown, Mich., responded to a disturbance call. On arrival, they were met by a couple who reported a man was going crazy. The officers noted several things at the residence that roused their suspicions. A pickup truck with its front smashed was located in the driveway; blood could be seen on the hood of the vehicle and on clothes inside; fence posts alongside the property were damaged; the house had three broken windows with glass on the ground outside; and blood was located on one of the doors to the house.
As the officers approached the residence, they could see Jeremy Fisher through a window. He was screaming and throwing things inside. Fisher locked the back door. A couch was placed behind the front door to prevent entry.
The officers knocked on the door, but Fisher refused to answer. The officers could see Fisher had a cut on his hand. They asked Fisher if he needed medical attention, to which he responded with profanity that the officers needed to get a search warrant if they wanted to get inside.
One of the officers pushed the front door open to step inside. He was confronted with Fisher pointing a long gun at him. The officer withdrew.
Eventually, Fisher was arrested and charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
Fisher filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the warrantless search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment because he was not suffering from a serious injury. The trial court concluded that the officer had violated Fisher's Fourth Amendment rights to be free from an unreasonable search when he entered Fisher s home, and granted Fisher s motion to suppress the evidence obtained as a result specifically the officer s statement that Fisher had pointed a gun at him.
The Wayne County prosecutor s office appealed, but the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the trial court in an unpublished decision. According to the appellate court, the situation didn't rise to the level of an emergency sufficient to justify a warrantless intrusion.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Michigan Court of Appeals. In a 7-2 decision, the court stated that the Michigan appellate court s decision was contrary to Fourth Amendment precedent.
U.S. Supreme Court
The Supreme Court reiterated that the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment ... is reasonableness, and that a search or seizure inside a home without a warrant is presumptively unreasonable. The court also stated that the presumption can be overcome with one of the exceptions to the warrantless search exigent circumstances.
The court stated that an exigent circumstance would be the need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury. This emergency aid exception requires only an objectively reasonable basis for believing that a person within [the house] is in need of immediate aid.
The question then becomes: What is a serious injury? In fact, the Michigan Court of Appeals found it significant that the mere drops of blood did not signal a likely serious, life-threatening injury. It found that the cut on Fisher s hand likely explained the trail of blood and that Fisher was very much on his feet and apparently able to see to his own needs.
The Supreme Court shot down the appellate court s reasoning, holding that [o]fficers do not need ironclad proof of a likely serious, life-threatening injury to invoke the emergency aid exception. It was of no consequence to the court that medical personnel were not summoned for Fisher after his arrest. Put simply, it was erroneous for the appellate court to replace [the] objective inquiry into appearances with its hindsight determination that there was in fact no emergency.
The Bottom Line
What's necessary for officers to invoke the emergency aid exception? Does it require a serious physical injury? Or will something as minor as a cut suffice?
We now know that something as minor as a bloody lip and a cut that was/is bleeding can form the basis for entry into a residence under this exception to the warrant requirement. If entry to a residence is based on the emergency aid exception, then officers would be prudent to document the injury(ies) that justified the entry in a police report. Photographs of the injury aren t a bad idea either.
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.