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Warrantless Entry and the Emergency Aid Exception

Written by Pam McDonald

The Fourth Amendment protects residences from “unreasonable searches” by the police. Police entry into a home without a warrant is presumptively unreasonable. The police can overcome this presumption and enter private premises without a warrant in two situations: when they have consent to enter or when exigent circumstances exist that justify such entry.

This “exigent circumstances” exception to the warrant requirement has created some confusion among the courts because it includes divisive topics such as hot pursuit, entry to preserve evidence and entry to effect an arrest.

In Michigan v. Fisher, December 2009, the Court provided some clarification of when police can enter a home under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement, and it specifically identifies the “emergency aid exception” as one type of exigency that may permit entry into a home without a warrant.

Facts of the Case

In Michigan v. Fisher, police responded to a disturbance and witnesses directed them to a residence where a man was “going crazy.” The officers encountered a chaotic scene: a pickup truck with a smashed front, damaged fence posts, recently broken house windows, blood on the truck, blood on clothes inside the truck and blood on a door. The officers could see that Fisher had a cut on his hand, and he was screaming and throwing things inside the house.

He ignored the police when they inquired about his hand, and he demanded, using profanity, that they get a search warrant. One of the officers pushed the front door partly open (it was blocked by a couch) and entered the house, but he withdrew when he saw Fisher pointing a long gun at him.

Fisher faced weapons charges, and the trial court suppressed the officer’s testimony about Fisher pointing the gun, finding that the police entry into his home was “unreasonable,” thus violating the Fourth Amendment. A higher Michigan court agreed with that decision. Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Michigan courts and upheld the officer’s entry into the home as “reasonable,” citing the “emergency aid exception.”

Comparison with Similar Prior Case

In reaching this conclusion, the Supreme Court relied extensively on its 2006 ruling in Brigham City v. Stuart, which involved somewhat similar facts. In Brigham City, officers responded to a “loud party” complaint at 3:00 a.m. and encountered an ongoing altercation inside a home. The officers observed several adults attempting to restrain a combative juvenile and saw the juvenile strike one of the adults in the mouth, drawing blood.

The officers announced their presence as they opened the screen door and entered, but the occupants did not notice the police until they reached the kitchen and cried out again. Upholding the police entry as reasonable, the Court stated “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 police arrested the adults but did not seek further medical assistance for them, so it was argued that the police were more interested in making criminal charges than subduing violence; thus their interest in rendering aid was insincere. The Court specifically rejected this reasoning, stating that the test of reasonableness required an “objective” view of the situation and that “the officer’s subjective motivation is irrelevant.”

Emergency Aid Exception Requires Objective Analysis

“The ‘emergency aid exception’ does not depend on the officers’ subjective intent or the seriousness of the crime they are investigating;” it only requires an objectively reasonable basis for believing that someone needs medical assistance or is in danger. “Ironclad proof” of a serious or life-threatening injury is not required to trigger the emergency aid exception.

The failure to summon an ambulance after the police have entered and assessed the situation has no bearing on the objective analysis that is required—the test of reasonableness is not what the officer subjectively believes, and his personal motivation is not relevant. Instead, the test of whether the warrantless police entry is reasonable requires an objective view of the circumstances.

Also, the Court notes that police duties are not limited to rendering first aid but also include preventing violence and restoring order. The police are not required to stand by as if refereeing a fight and wait to intervene only when things are decidedly one-sided; rather, they are required to prevent harm when they are able. It is sufficient to invoke the emergency aid exception if police reasonably believe that may prevent harm or injury.

Objectively Reasonable

It was objectively reasonable under the emergency aid exception for the police to enter Fisher’s home without a warrant. The police observed signs of an injury (perhaps related to a car accident) and saw Fisher throwing things inside the house in rage.

It was reasonable for them to enter to determine if he or anyone else in the home might be injured or in danger, and to attempt to prevent further violence and restore order. Just as the officers in Brigham City were not required to “stand dumbly at the door” while the fracas ensued, the officers in Fisher were not required “to walk away” from the situation they encountered.

Randy Means is a partner in Thomas & Means, a law firm specializing entirely in police operations and administration. He has served the national law enforcement community full-time for more than 30 years and is the author of “The Law of Policing,” which is available at LRIS.com. He can be reached directly at rbmeans@aol.com.

In her 20-year career with law enforcement, Pam McDonald has been a patrol officer, a felony investigator, a felony prosecutor and a college professor in the area of police law. She currently serves as head of the Thomas & Means publications section and assists Randy Means in much of his work. She can be reached at pammcdonaldfirm@aol.com.

Published in Law and Order, Feb 2010

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