U.S. Supreme Court Cites Emergency Exception and Allows Warrantless Entry of Home by Police

When can police enter a house without a warrant under the emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment?  The court held: Officers need only an objective reasonable basis for believing that medical assistance is needed or someone is in danger.

The Case: Michigan v. Jeremy Fisher, Docket No. 09-91 (2009)

 
 

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police did not violate a man’s Fourth Amendment rights by entering his house under the emergency aid exception, even after he told them to get a search warrant, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Dec. 7.

The decision allows police greater latitude in deciding whether to enter a dwelling without a warrant, requiring only an “objectively reasonable belief” that aid is needed, rather than “ironclad proof” of a threat.

In Michigan v. Jeremy Fisher, Docket No. 09-91, Brownstown Township police arrived at the defendant’s house to respond to a complaint that Fisher was “going crazy. “

They found a pickup truck in the driveway with a smashed front end, a damaged fencepost along the side of the property, and three house windows broken from the inside. They also noticed blood on the hood of the truck, on clothes inside the truck, and on one of the doors to the house. The back door was locked, and a couch was blocking the front door.

The officers looked in a window and saw Fisher screaming and throwing things. There was some dispute as to whether he had some blood dripping from his hand. The officers asked him if he needed help, to which he responded by swearing at the police and told them to get a search warrant.

One of the officers pushed the front door open and tried to enter, only to find Fisher pointing a rifle at him. Fisher was arrested for assault with a dangerous weapon and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.

The circuit court dismissed the charges on grounds that the officer entering the house violated Fisher’s Fourth Amendment rights. The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the trial court in an unpublished decision.

The Michigan Supreme Court originally agreed to hear the case, but, after hearing oral arguments, vacated its leave order.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office’s petition for certiorari, and reversed the Michigan courts without further briefing or oral argument.

In a per curium decision, the 7-2 majority wrote that the Court of Appeals’ decision was contrary to Fourth Amendment case law, particularly Brigham City v. Stuart (547 U.S. 398), which involved police entering a house to break up a fight.

The “emergency aid exception,” the court explained, applies when “the exigencies of the situation [may] make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that the warrantless search is objectionably reasonable,” such as when “the need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury. “

“Thus, law enforcement officers ‘may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury. ‘”

The court took issue with the Michigan Court of Appeals’ holding that the situation did not rise to a level of emergency justifying the warrantless intrusion into a residence, because the mere drops of blood did not signal a likely serious, life-threatening injury.

“Officers do not need ironclad proof of a ‘likely serious, life-threatening’ injury to invoke the emergency aid exception,” the court said.

In the dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that the court was being too hasty in overturning the Michigan court “when faced with a close question of reasonableness of an officer’s actions” without further probing into the facts of the case. He did not opine on the merits of the majority decision.

 

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