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Police discretion to enter without warrant

Date Posted to Site: 05/23/2006

Cops didn't need warrant to break up fight

Decision gives police discretion to enter without warrant

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A unanimous Supreme Court ruled Monday that Utah officers properly entered a private home without a search warrant after witnessing a fight.

The decision gives law enforcement greater discretion to intervene when making snap decisions about threats of violence.

After hearing arguments in the case, several justices seemed openly underwhelmed by the importance of the matter. Justice John Paul Stevens called it "an odd flyspeck of a case."

At issue is whether the "emergency" circumstances that normally allow officers entry into a home without warrants were present in this incident. The court also took a look at the "subjective motivation" that prompted the officers' intervention in the physical struggle they witnessed.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion, less than a month after arguments were held, an unusually quick turnaround for a criminal case.

"The role of a police officer includes preventing violence and restoring order, not simply rendering first aid to casualties," wrote Roberts. "An officer is not like a boxing (or hockey) referee, poised to stop a bout only if it becomes too one-sided."

The facts of the case are typical of the kinds of incidents police respond to all the time: a 3 a.m. complaint about a noisy party.

Four Brigham City officers arrived at a private home on July 23, 2001, but did not find obvious signs of a party. Instead they heard a loud commotion, with "thumping" and shouts of "stop, stop" and "get off of me."

Three of the officers went to the back of the house and found two teenagers drinking beer as the commotion continued inside. Through a window they saw four adults attempting to restrain a teenager against a refrigerator. The boy was trying to wrestle free amid obscenities and cries of "calm down."

Officers saw a punch
As the police came to an open screen door, they saw the teen punch one of the adults in the nose, causing blood. Officers then entered and announced their presence, eventually getting attention of the occupants, who gradually ceased fighting.

Officers claimed they tried to offer aid to the injured adult, but others in the home turned abusive and were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, intoxication, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, all misdemeanors.

The Utah Supreme Court eventually agreed with the defense to exclude evidence, ruling there had been no "immediate serious threat" that justified police entering the home without knocking, or without obtaining a warrant. The charges were dismissed.

But Roberts concluded, "We think the officers' entry here was plainly reasonable under the circumstances. The officers had an objectively reasonable basis for believing both the injured adult might need help and that the violence in the kitchen was just beginning."

The case now goes back to the state courts, with prosecutors free to press charges against the men, using the evidence gathered by police.

A lawyer for the home occupants told the justices that Utah courts all found that it was an unreasonable search. "If they can make their presence known inside the home, they can make their presence known outside the home," said Michael Studebaker.

Lower courts are divided
But Roberts thought otherwise. "The officer's announcement of his presence was at least equivalent to a knock on the door. Indeed, it was probably the only option that had even a chance of rising above the din."

Courts have been deeply divided around the country over when "emergency aid" allows home entries by police without a warrant.

Stevens, 86, said it was "peculiar" how the lower courts ruled, and the fact his fellow justices even agreed to hear it. "It is hard to imagine the outcome was ever in doubt," he noted.

The Bush administration supported the city, and has been a strong advocate of greater law enforcement powers in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The high court itself has taken a keen interest in search-and-seizure cases since those 2001 incidents.

While generally supporting police, the court last month ruled that officers responding to a domestic disturbance were wrong to search a Georgia man's home for drugs, even though his estranged wife had consented. The justices concluded when one legal occupant clearly objects to the search, as the man did, police cannot proceed without a warrant.

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