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Court says Mich. cops didn't violate Fourth Amendment rights

The Court ruled officers can enter a house with no warrant if there is 'reasonable basis' for believing that someone is in danger

By Brian P. Frasier
Michigan Lawyers Weekly

WASHINGTON, D.C. — 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.

Defense attorney and law professor Kenneth M. Mogill said he thinks the decision may even be a prelude to a greater fight to come over the "emergency aid" exception to the Fourth Amendment.

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 The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the trial court in an unpublished decision.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.

Wayne County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney David A. McCreedy, who handled the appeals, was pleased with the decision.

"We thought that the best result was going to be a per curium opinion, because this was more of an error correction than it is blazing a new trail or establishing a new law," he said. "This is kind of the best result we saw.

"In general, they aren't an error-correcting court. "

Mogill, an attorney from Lake Orion-based Mogill, Posner & Cohen P.C. who teaches criminal procedure at Wayne State University Law School, also was surprised that the court decided to hear the case.

"That's certainly more than a bit of a head-scratcher," he said. "When you look at their decision in Stuart, the facts there are certainly more like the kind of facts that on a gut level would warrant emergency action to prevent serious imminent harm. "

Mogill referenced Justice Stevens' concurrence in Stuart that questioned why the court granted certiorari for such an "odd flyspeck of a case. "

"If that was an 'odd flyspeck of a case,'" Mogill said, "Fisher is a pimple on a flyspeck. "

Mogill speculated that the faction of the court that prefers more latitude to police in these situations is "building ammunition" for a future case involving the emergency aid doctrine.

Allen J. Counard, the attorney for Fisher, was concerned that the court misreported the facts. He said that there was an initial entry, when he told them to get a search warrant, before the police looked around the area and saw the smashed truck, the broken glass and the blood. Then the police tried to enter the house again.

"Then they tried to come in again," he said. "[Fisher] was sitting on his bed with his dog between his legs and they say he pointed a long gun at them. "

Counard, of Counard & Heilmann PLLC in Trenton, said that he's thought of filing a motion for rehearing considering the factual errors, but that he didn't think that the court cared about the differences in the fact patterns.

"If you're going to put a nail in the coffin of the Fourth Amendment, you really ought to get the facts right," he said.

McCreedy said that the risk of abuse of the emergency aid exception -- based on this case -- is minimal.

"If the police come to your home and they say, 'We think there may be something wrong here,' and you give a reasonable explanation, I don't think you have to worry about them barging in," he said.

Mogill said any time you have an exception to the warrant clause, there's potential for abuse, but added that there's "nothing to suggest any nefarious intent" by the officer in this case.

"Situations like this are extremely dangerous for police officers," he said. "A disproportionate [number] of injuries and death to police officers occur when they are approaching situations in homes.

"It's a very difficult set of policy considerations for any court to balance. "

Decision in a Nutshell

The Issue: When can police enter a house without a warrant under the emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment?

The Ruling: 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)

Copyright 2009 Michigan Lawyers Weekly

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