2018 Law Update – When Police Can Re-Enter a Home After an Emergency
The 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits police from entering a home without a warrant, but there are exceptions to this rule including exigent circumstances, consent, the plain view exception, etc. An officer can enter a home without a warrant to render aid or carry out a public safety service. However, a recent PA Supreme Court case puts a limit on that right, which applies in criminal drug/gun cases in Philadelphia.
Exigent Circumstances Which Allow Warrantless Entry of a Home – Public Safety/Emergency
It is well established under state and federal constitutional law that police officers can enter a home for public safety reasons or to render aid in an emergency situation. A warrant is not required to do so.
For example, a Philadelphia police officer is walking down the street in North Philadelphia and hears several gun shots and then screaming coming from a home. The officer may enter the home, without a warrant, to render aid as needed and ensure that the occupants are safe.
But what about afterwards, or after the emergency situation has been handled? Using the above example, what is the officer or other officers allowed to do once any shooting victims have received aid and the shooter has been apprehended? Is the officer allowed to conduct a full blown search of the house without a warrant?
Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court answered this question, against law enforcement and in favor of home owners. In the above scenario, law enforcement could not justify a repeat entry into the home to conduct a search, unless they get a search warrant. Essentially, once the emergency situation is under control, the 4th Amendment applies.
Commonwealth v. Wilmer, PA Supreme Court, Sept. 2018
In the Wilmer case, police officers were on a routine patrol and noticed a person who appeared intoxicated staggering around on the roof of a sorority house. The officers sought entry to the home, but the occupants declined. So, the officers broke a window, entered the home and tried to rescue the person on the roof. Officers were unsuccessful in their attempts to reach the roof; the individual ended up falling off the roof and then was treated by EMT.
As the officers exited the home, one officer saw and seized a bag of marijuana and a marijuana grinder on a coffee table. He then entered the house again and knocked on a closed bedroom door. The door was answered by defendant Wilmer who said that the bedroom was hers. The officer saw drug paraphernalia (a bong and pipe) on the bedside table. She was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia.
Wilmer raised the constitutional issue, violation of the 4th Amendment, which the trial court denied. The trial judge found that the officers were justified in re-entering the home in order to get information for the police report, and that the entire event was one fluid or continuous episode. Wilmer was found guilty and then appealed based on the 4th Amendment issue. The intermediate appellate court, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled against her, agreeing with the trial court.
On appeal, the PA Supreme Court reversed both the Superior Court and the trial court. It held that once the emergency situation is over (i.e., the aid has been rendered), law enforcement must abide by 4th Amendment standards, which in this case required a warrant. The court stated:
“In other words, the right of entry into the private dwelling by law enforcement officers terminates when either the necessary emergency assistance has been provided or it has been confirmed that no one inside needs emergency assistance. At that point, law enforcement officers must leave the residence unless some other exception to the warrant requirement permits their continued presence.” (emphasis added)
How the Wilmer Case Applies to Guns or Drugs Seized from a Home Without a Warrant
The Wilmer case would only apply to cases where police officers seized evidence during or after entering a home to render aid. Let’s return to our example above.
Let’s say that after the officer heard the gunshots and screaming, he kicked down the front door and went from room to room looking for victims and a shooter. He finds an occupant shot and bleeding in a bedroom, and another occupant holding a gun. The victim tells the officer that she has been shot by her boyfriend. The officer arrests the boyfriend and calls EMT for the victim. The officer conducts a cursory search of the premises to ensure there are no other victims or perps. Other officers respond to the scene, and one of them takes the boyfriend down to the station for processing. At this point, no one is in the home; the victim has been taken to a hospital and the alleged perp has been taken to the precinct. Several hours have passed since the officer first entered the home to render aid. The officer re-enters the home and conducts a full blown search. In a dresser, in another room, he finds drugs, guns and thousands of dollars in cash. The boyfriend’s roommate, who was not present for any of the events, but lives in the room where the contraband is found, is charged with drug and gun charges.
Under the Wilmer case, the boyfriend’s roommate would have a valid constitutional argument that the officer was not allowed to conduct a full blown search after the emergency situation was under control. Rather, the officer should have gotten a warrant to search for evidence pertaining to the shooting. Searching the roommate’s bedroom was a clear violation of the 4th Amendment. It’s highly likely the court would suppress the drug and gun evidence found in the roommate’s dresser, and accordingly, the charges would be dropped.
Click the link for the Philadelphia Criminal Drug & Gun Charge Law Library.
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