Question: Can a police dispatch call provide the probable cause needed to justify a warrantless entry of a home?
Quick answer: Yes, if the call reveals that exigent circumstances exist.
Facts: On Nov. 16, 2012, police received a dispatch call that someone fired shots from an AK-47 assault rifle in a duplex apartment and that a person had been shot inside the residence. Police learned that defendant Larry Johnson was a possible suspect and that a brown Oldsmobile might be involved in the crime. Police officers arrived, surrounded the duplex home, and spoke with Johnson’s downstairs neighbor. She explained that she recently saw Johnson run from a black car and head upstairs. Police headed upstairs, where they heard noises inside the apartment and saw a light turn on. However, no one answered the door when they knocked. The dispatcher then reported that a dead body was inside the home along with drugs, so the officers forcibly entered the home and secured the scene. Johnson and two other men were inside. No one was injured, and no dead bodies or assault rifles were found. The officers smelled marijuana, and Johnson admitted he had smoked marijuana and also possessed marijuana. He consented to a search of his home. Police found marijuana, crack cocaine, powder cocaine, drug paraphernalia, and a gun.
Why the case is important: The officers were justified in making a warrantless entry into Johnson’s home. The many dispatch calls they received established probable cause for the entry based on exigent circumstances. It considered a number of factors in deciding that exigent circumstances were present: “(1) the gravity of the offense; (2) that the suspect is reasonably believed to be armed; (3) probable cause that the suspect committed the crime; (4) a strong reason to believe that the suspect is in the premises being entered; (5) a likelihood that the suspect will escape if not swiftly apprehended; (6) that the entry is made peaceably; and (7) the time of entry.”
In Johnson’s case, because officers worried that someone might be dead or dying inside the apartment, they chose to force their way in without a warrant. Their actions were justified by the exigent circumstances warrant exception. The warrantless search of Johnson’s apartment also was justified under the warrant’s consent exception. The officers didn’t search Johnson’s apartment until after they had smelled marijuana, read Johnson his Miranda rights, and then read and had him sign a consent form.
Keep in mind: It’s always best to first get a search warrant before entering someone’s home, but sometimes you aren’t able to. If you reasonably believe that a person’s life or safety is at risk or that a suspect is destroying evidence of felony crime, then you can make a warrantless entry into the home without worry of violating the Fourth Amendment, even if you later find out that some of the information wasn’t true.
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