Posted on Dec 08, 2009

One of the basic freedoms and civil rights we enjoy is the right to privacy in our own homes.   Law enforcement must have some probable cause, or exigent (i.e. emergency) circumstances to enter a citizen's home without a warrant.  There is a whole body of court opinions in our jurisprudence that talk about what those circumstances are.  Yesterday, in the case of Michigan v. Fisher, the U.S. Supreme Court provided further clarification.

In this case, the court observed that:

"Police officers responded to a complaint of a [residential] disturbance . . .  [The police officer] later testified that, as he and his partner approached the area, a couple directed them to a residence where a man was "going crazy."  . . . Upon their arrival, the officers found a household in considerable chaos: a pickup truck in the driveway with its front smashed, damaged fenceposts along the side of the property, and three broken house windows, the glass still on the ground outside. The officers also noticed blood on the hood of the pickup and on clothes inside of it, as well as on one of the doors to the house. . . . Through a window, the officers could see [the Defendant] inside the house, screaming and throwing things. The back door was locked, and a couch had been placed to block the front door.

The officers knocked, but Fisher refused to answer. They saw that Fisher had a cut on his hand, and they asked him whether he needed medical attention. Fisher ignored these questions and demanded . . . that the officers go to get a search warrant.  [The] officer . . . then pushed the front door partway open and ventured into the house. Through the window of the open door he saw Fisher pointing a long gun at him.  . . .  Fisher was charged under Michigan law with assault with a dangerous weapon and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony."

Based on these facts, the court ruled that a warrantless entry into a residence, based upon a police desire to render emergency aid, need not involve a serious emergency or even obvious injury. Rather, the test is whether the police had "an objectively reasonable basis" to believe that medical assistance might be needed or that people may be in danger.

The court went on to say that police officers do not need iron-clad proof of a serious, life-threatening emergency to make a warrantless home entry under this exception to the warrant requirement. The Justices noted that the role of the police officer includes preventing violence and restoring order, not simply rendering first aid to casualties. The Court's opinion in Fisher emphasizes previous holdings by the court that the police may effect a warrantless home entry to prevent potential injury and need not wait until someone is actually injured.

Steven J. Richardson
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Bankruptcy, Collections, Student Loan, DUI and Traffic Court attorney in Woodbury, NJ.