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U.S. Supreme Court Exigent Entry at Loud Music Call

Jack Ryan

Brigham City v. Stuart, involved a fairly typical police event. Officers from Brigham City were called at 3:00 a.m. about a loud party at a residence. Two officers approached the house and heard yelling and what sounded like a disturbance at the rear of the house. The officers documented the fact that they heard “thumping and crashing” and someone yelling “stop, stop…get off me.” The officers could not see anything from the front door so they did not knock. Instead, they walked to the rear of the house, where they initially observed two juveniles drinking beer. The officers walked to the rear door and could see into the kitchen. Prior to knocking or entering the officers could see four adults attempting to restrain a juvenile. As the officers watched, the juvenile broke free and punched one of the adults in the face. The adult who was punched walked to the kitchen sink and spit blood into the sink. Having observed the fracas in the kitchen, one of the officers opened the screen door and announced the police presence. Due the continued fracas, no one paid attention. The officers then stepped into the kitchen and again announced their presence. This second announcement caused the disturbance to subside and order was restored.

While inside the house, the officers observed evidence in plain view leading to probable cause that the adults who were present had provided alcoholic beverages to the juveniles at the party. The evidence was seized and the adults were charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors. The adults challenged the seizure of the evidence from the house arguing that the police should have obtained a warrant before entering.

The first element of a “plain view” seizure is that police must be lawfully present in an area protected by the Fourth Amendment. There is no question that the residence was protected by the Fourth Amendment. The question in this case is whether the officers were lawfully present inside the residence. There are three ways in which law enforcement can gain lawful presence inside a home. The first is with a warrant; the second is with consent; and, the third is under exigent circumstances. The police in this case were relying on exigent circumstances to justify the entry in this case. It should be noted that some courts distinguish exigent circumstances from an “emergency aid” exception. The distinction between the two is of little importance with respect to a practical application by officers since both of these exceptions indicate that there is no time for police to obtain a warrant due to some ongoing emergency circumstance.

In its review of the case, the United States Supreme Court held that police may enter a home when faced with facts supporting that there is ongoing violence occurring inside. “In these circumstances, the officers had an objectively reasonable basis for believing both that the injured adult might need help and that the violence in the kitchen was just beginning. Nothing in the Fourth Amendment required them to wait until another blow rendered someone “unconscious” or “semi-conscious” or worse before entering. The role of a peace officer includes preventing violence and restoring order, not simply rendering first aid to casualties; an officer is not like a boxing (or hockey) referee, poised to stop a bout only if it becomes too one-sided.”

Having concluded that the entry was reasonable the court then examined the method of the entry and concluded: “The manner of the officers’ entry was also reasonable. After witnessing the punch, one of the officers opened the screen door and ‘yelled in police.’ When nobody heard him, he stepped into the kitchen and announced himself again. Only then did the tumult subside. The officer’s announcement of his presence was at least equivalent to a knock on the screen door. Indeed, it was probably the only option that had even a chance of rising above the din. Under these circumstances, there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment’s knock-and-announce rule.

Having concluded that the decision to enter was objectively reasonable and that the manner of entry was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, the Court held that the evidence should not have been suppressed and should be allowed in the prosecution of these adults.

Key Points

1. Where an officer’s personal observations or reliable information would lead a reasonable officer to conclude that ongoing violence is occurring in a residence, officers may enter without a warrant under the exigency exception to the warrant requirement.

2. Officers who are faced with an on-going violent situation in a home need not wait until serious injury results before making an entry.

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