Whether officers who entered a private home because they believed a fight was occurring inside violated the Fourth Amendment, or are the officers protected under either the emergency aid exception or the exigency exception.
The Fourth Amendment protects an individual’s right to be free from unreasonable government intrusion by prohibiting unlawful searches and seizures without a warrant. Two related exceptions to this rule are relevant in this case: the emergency aid exception and the exigent circumstance exception. This case will help define the type of conduct that must occur in order for an officer to validly invoke either the exigent circumstance or the emergency aid exception. The Court’s decision will help sharpen the line between permissible and impermissible police involvement and define the level of protection individuals continue to have under the Fourth Amendment.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
1. Does the "emergency aid exception" to the warrant requirement recognized in Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385 (1978), turn on an officer's subjective motivation for entering the home?
2. Was the gravity of the "emergency" or "exigency" sufficient to justify, under the Fourth Amendment, the officers' entry into the home to stop the fight?
On July 23, 2001, at approximately 3:00 a.m., four Brigham City, Utah police officers were dispatched to respond to a complaint about a loud party. Brief for Petitioner at 2. When the officers arrived at the scene, they did not hear a loud party but did hear some sort of commotion that sounded like a fight. Id. The officers looked through the front window of the house and not finding the cause of the commotion, traveled to the backyard to investigate further. Id. The officers peered through the backyard fence and saw what they believed to be two teenage boys drinking alcohol. Id. Although the officers did not see an actual fight, they could hear what sounded like a fight ensuing and they subsequently entered the backyard. Id. One officer restrained the underage males and two officers walked to the back of the house where, through a window, they saw four adults restraining a teenage boy against a refrigerator. Id. at 3. The teenage boy was trying to remove himself from the grasp of the adults and was screaming and cursing. Id. The two officers then walked past the window to an open back door with a closed screen. Id. They then saw the teenage boy punch one of the adults and in response, the police opened the screen door and entered the house screaming, “police.” Id. However, with all the commotion, no one heard the officers announce their presence. Id. The adults were then arrested for disorderly conduct, intoxication, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.Id. at 4.
At trial, the adults moved to suppress the evidence found inside the house. Id. They alleged that by entering the house without a warrant, the officers violated their Fourth Amendment rights, which protects individuals from illegal searches and seizures. Id. The trial court agreed with the adults. Id. The court further held that the officers should have acted according to the Fourth Amendment and knocked on the door of the house. Id. Brigham City subsequently appealed to the Utah Court of Appeals which upheld the trial court’s decision. Id. Brigham City appealed further to the Utah Supreme Court which also upheld the trial court’s decision to suppress the evidence. Id. The Utah Supreme Court held that the officers’ actions were not justified under either the exigent circumstance exception or the emergency aid exception. Id.
The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures and allows individuals to feel safe and secure in their persons and possessions. See Fourth Amendment.com.The Supreme Court has drawn a clear line that the Fourth Amendment is most protective of individuals in their homes. Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27, 40 (2001). Over time, however, the courts have struck a balance between protecting an individual’s interest to be free in their home and the government’s interest in protecting the public; therefore, exceptions such as exigent circumstances and emergency aid were developed. Fourth Amendment.com.
The exigent circumstance exception often makes impermissible police intervention permissible if an officer finds that the circumstances are so dire that the need for law enforcement action makes the unlawful entry necessary. Brief for Petitioner at 10. The emergency aid exception is a sub-category of the exigent circumstance exception. Brief for Petitioner at 10. Under the emergency aid exception, law enforcement officers may enter a dwelling without a warrant. Fourth Amendment.com. It allows police officers to make these “warrantless entries” when they reasonably believe that a person within the dwelling is in need of immediate aid. Brief for Petitioner at 10-11. In other words, impermissible police conduct becomes permissible when there is a need to protect or preserve life or to avoid serious injury. Id.The Utah courts have adopted a three-prong test that renders a warrantless search lawful under the emergency aid doctrine: "(1) Police have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency exists and believe there is an immediate need for their assistance for the protection of life. (2) The search is not primarily motivated by intent to arrest and seize evidence. (3) There is some reasonable basis to associate the emergency with the area or place to be searched.” Id. at 9-10.
In Brigham City, Petitioners are asking the Court to find the police behavior reasonable since their purpose was to quell violence and prevent further injury. Id. at 30. They cite previous Supreme Court cases such as Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385 (1978) for support. Brigham City explains that “the emergency aid doctrine is derived from the commonsense understanding that exigent circumstances may require public safety officials, such as the police ... to enter a dwelling without a warrant for the purpose of protecting or preserving life, or preventing serious injury." Id.; see also Mincey, 437 U.S. 385. The legal answer in this case, however, will turn heavily on the factual analysis of the Court as they decide whether the altercation that the officers observed was so critical as to trigger the emergency aid exception. The Court will need to decide whether it was reasonable for the officers to believe that immediate aid was necessary thereby making their actions lawful. “Utah Keeps the Police at Bay.”
Brigham City also cites historical references that date back to the drafting of the United States Constitution. They cite one poignant example where the need for law enforcement protection outweighs the need of an individual’s right to be free in their own home—“[i]f there be an affray in a house, where the doors are shut, whereby there is likely to be manslaughter or bloodshed committed, the constable may break open the doors to keep the peace and prevent danger.” Brief for Petitioner at 27. Brigham City uses this illustration as an analogy to the facts in Brigham City to justify the police intervention. They are asking the Court to find the police behavior acceptable, reasonable, and worthy of protection. They argue that the Fourth Amendment does not require an officer “to simply shrug his shoulders and allow the violence to continue.” Id. at 24-5. However, more importantly, the Court will have to decide whether the actions here—the scuffle viewed from the backyard of a private dwelling—truly do outweigh the individual rights given to persons in their home.
On the other hand, Respondents are asking the Court to confer greater protections to individuals in their dwelling under the Fourth Amendment. They are asking the Court to tip the balance away from law enforcement and in favor of individual rights. As the Supreme Court of Utah helped explain, individuals should feel respected in their homes and the Fourth Amendment exists precisely to help preserve that right. Brigham City v. Stuart, 122 P.3d 506. The judge went on to say that inhabitants may even choose to expose themselves to greater risk in their homes if it means they can be left alone in their homes. Id. Respondents emphasize the Supreme Court of Utah’s decision’s by pointing out that the Fourth Amendmenthas historically protected individuals from warrantless searches in general but has been even more protective of warrantless invasions in the home. “Utah Keeps the Police at Bay.” For support, they cite cases such as Kyllo v. United States, which explains the high degree of protection the Fourth Amendmentbestows to individuals in their homes. 533 U.S. 27, 40 (2001). Furthermore, attorneys for the Respondents argue that Mincey v. Arizona provides greater support for their case rather than Brigham City’s case. In Mincey, warrantless search of a murder scene in a house was deemed unconstitutional and not worthy of protection because immediate aid was not necessary since the murder had already happened. 437 U.S. 385. Respondents argue that Minceyset a high standard that the circumstances in Brigham City do not meet.
In Brigham City v. Stuart, the United States Supreme Court will determine the extent to which a police officer’s subjective motivation can justify police intervention that would otherwise violate the Fourth Amendment. As the Attorney General of Utah stated, Brigham City will definitively answer the type of situations in which it is permissible for a police officer to intervene in a dwelling. See Utah Attorney General Press Release. The parties to this case are asking the Court to accept two different interpretations on how liberally the Fourth Amendmentexceptions should apply.
Brigham City has drawn the attention of the law enforcement community across the nation because of the impact it will have on police officer conduct. Brigham City and its supporters such as the United States Solicitor General argue a decision favoring Respondents could lead to serious ramifications where police officers will no longer be able to properly protect the public. See “Utah Keeps the Police at Bay,” Medill: On the Docket. Northwestern University Posted March 11, 2006.A decision for the Respondents would mean that police would no longer be able to respond to some physical altercations involving teenagers or adults, which could lead to real and substantial injuries. Brieffor Petitioner at 25. Instead of responding to potentially violent situations, officers would be fearful of potential future litigation and not intervene. As a result, the number of violent crimes and other problems would unnecessarily rise. For example, a decision for Respondents would mean that an officer may not be able to assist a child who tells him, “officer my mommy won’t wake up.” See “Utah Keeps the Police at Bay.” firemen are not asked to secure a warrant or get consent from individuals before entering a burning house, so too it would be illogical to ask a police officer—whose job it is to protect the public—from not intervening in an ongoing fight that is occurring in a home. Brieffor Petitioner at 25.
Although the law enforcement community seems to have a strong case, Respondents, also note some worthy considerations. They emphasize that a decision for Brigham City could lead to negative consequences for the public at large. A decision for Brigham City would give police officers wide discretion in determining the best way to handle situations that occur within a person’s most private place, their home. See “Utah Keeps the Police at Bay.” If police officers are not given a strict procedure to comply with when addressing “struggles” within a home, then they can make ad-hoc decisions that can vary widely, with perhaps some officers entering a private home too quickly, while other officers never entering the home to intervene when needed. Id. Furthermore, the magnitude of the harm in the Brigham City case is very low, so a decision for the Brigham City would allow police officers to enter a private residence for any minor altercation. Brigham City v. Stuart, 122 P.3d 506 (Utah 2005). Under this interpretation of Fourth Amendmentjurisprudence, a police officer would hardly ever be guilty of violating an individual’s rights since the officer can easily claim to have been acting to prevent possible injury and, thus, fall within the emergency aid exception. Officers would be permitted to behave in an impermissible manner based on their own personal speculation as to whether a dispute will turn into physical harm that will in turn result in injury. Id. In essence, a decision for Brigham City could render the Fourth Amendment’s goal of protecting individuals, especially in their homes, almost meaningless.
In Brigham City, the court will have to define the proper balance between permissible and impermissible conduct under the Fourth Amendment and its exceptions. Whether the Court finds for the petitioner or the respondent, its decision will have a lasting impact on the law enforcement community, as well as on the public the law enforcement community tries to serve and protect.
- CRS Annotated Constitution: 4th Amendment - Search and Seizure