Police Overstep Bounds in Entering Home to Arrest DUI Offender

October 22, 2013

The Defendant, Justin Gibson, entered a guilty plea to driving under the influence, first offense. He agreed to a sentence of 11 months and 29 days, all of which was suspended after seven days’ incarceration. Gibson reserved a certified question of law challenging the warrantless search of his home as not justified by either consent or exigent circumstances.

Gibson filed a motion to suppress the statements he made to emergency personnel and the resulting blood alcohol test, arguing that there were no exigent circumstances to permit Captain Walsh’s entry into his home.  As a result, all the evidence from the unconstitutional entry should be suppressed, he said. The trial court held a hearing on the motion, where Walsh testified that he was concerned that there might have been an injury either to a driver or an occupant in the car because of the amount of damage in a car accident where there was no driver found near the car.

When Walsh arrived at the house, and although the door was wide open, he didn’t see any signs of forced entry. Walsh walked around the outside of the house, and met a next-door neighbor, who had come to speak with him. At that point, Walsh decided he should go inside the residence to “check to see if someone was injured from the crash or … there could have been a break-in.” He made the decision to enter the residence based upon the “totality of the circumstances with the crashed car, front door standing open, the next-door neighbor who was watching the house telling me that the front door earlier had been locked.”

Walsh explained that, while the front door was open, to go inside the residence required him to open a closed, screen door.  Upstairs he noticed a person later identified as Gibson. Walsh smelled alcohol on Gibson and said he believed he was intoxicated. Concerned that Gibson was injured, he called for emergency medical services (EMS). The EMS were able to rouse Gibson and place him on a backboard and take him to the ambulance. Walsh, who was just outside the ambulance door, overheard Gibson make statements to the firefighters and paramedics who were treating him.  Gibson admitted he had consumed alcohol and said that “he was DUI, not injured.”  When asked why he did not consider obtaining a search warrant before entering, Walsh testified that it would take a long time at 3 am.

After reviewing the facts and the applicable law, the trial court found that Walsh’s presence in Gibson’s home was lawful on both consent and exigent circumstances grounds. The record supported that the neighbor had been given authority to enter the home while Gibson’s parents were out of town.  The neighbor had the apparent authority to consent to Walsh’s search of the residence.

The trial court also determined that Captain Walsh had probable cause to believe that Gibson was in the house, injured and in need of medical assistance. The totality of the circumstances as known to Walsh at the time he entered Gibson’s house created an urgent need for immediate action, eliminating the timely procedure of securing a search warrant, said the trial court.

On appeal, Judge D. Kelly Thomas, Jr. of the Court of Criminal Appeals found the issue to be whether the entry and subsequent search of Gibson’s home by the police violated his rights under the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments and of the Tennessee Constitution, and whether any evidence, statements, and blood tests obtained as a result of the search should be suppressed as the fruits of an unconstitutional search, in light of the fact that there was no valid consent to search the home, and there were no exigent circumstances present to otherwise justify the entry and search.

Judge Thomas noted that the general rule is that a warrantless search or seizure is presumed unreasonable and any evidence discovered is subject to suppression. The burden is on the State to demonstrate that one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement applied at the time of the search or seizure. Under the “emergency aid” exception, officers are permitted to enter a home without a warrant to give emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.  Officers are not required to have “ironclad proof of a likely serious, life-threatening injury to invoke the emergency aid exception.” They just must have an “objectively reasonable basis for believing” that “a person within the house is in need of immediate aid.”

Judge Thomas wrote that all cases where a court found that an exigent circumstance existed appeared to share two common factors.  First, in all of the cases, officers observed events obviously occurring within the residence or building, such as cries for help, screams, loud noises, or an observation of a struggle or fight within the structure by looking through a window. Second, the judge explained that courts have found exigent circumstances exist when officers observed events or evidence leading directly to a structure like a trail of blood leading to a closed door.  In Gibson’s case, there was a series of suspicious circumstances occurring at or near the residence on the evening in question.  However, the factors common in the other exigent circumstances cases were not present:  there were neither signs nor sounds of distress coming from inside the home nor evidence leading directly to the structure.

Judge Thomas reasoned that Walsh was aware of the following information before entering Gibson’s home:

(1) A car registered to that address had apparently hit a tree about one-half of a mile away with the airbags had deployed;

(2) When he arrived at the residence at approximately 3 a.m., the front door to the residence was open, but the glass, security door was closed;

(3) No one responded to his presence when he announced himself and knocked at both the front and the back of the residence; and

(4) The neighbor who was caring for the residents’ dog, told Walsh he believed all of the residents were out of town and that the door was not ajar when he was at the residence several hours earlier that day.

Under those circumstances, Judge Thomas held that the trial court’s ruling that exigent circumstances did not justified Walsh’s entry based upon his belief that someone inside of the home might have been seriously injured or a possible burglary might have occurred. The cases that approve a warrantless entry into a home to give emergency aid and assistance are—without exception—based upon the officers’ observations of the place to be searched. Those observations determined that a person had been or was about to be harmed, which required immediate action. That wasn’t the case with Gibson, as there was no evidence leading directly into the home, such as a trail of blood, and there were no noises, voices or screams leading officers to believe someone inside may be in immediate distress or in need of protection. Nothing at the accident scene caused Walsh to believe that the driver was seriously injured. The Criminal Court of Appeals concluded that warrantless search was not appropriate based upon exigent circumstances. Accordingly, the judgment of the trial court was reversed. The charge against Gibson was dismissed. State v. Gibson, Slip Copy, 2013 WL 5701650 (Tenn.Crim.App. Oct. 18, 2013).

 

Questions about DUI’s, suppression hearings, or other issues in a criminal case?

Kevin Patterson has been providing professional legal services to individuals and businesses throughout the greater Memphis area since 1983.  Kevin will treat your legal issue with the dedicated service and attention it deserves. Call Kevin at (901) 300-4820 or e-mail him at kpatterson@kgplawfirm.com to talk to him about your legal matter.

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