If peace officers make a warrantless entry into a suspect’s home for a traffic offense even though they didn’t see the offense and don’t have a reasonable belief that the suspect is injured, have they violated the Fourth Amendment?
Police were dispatched to a Cleveland neighborhood because a neighbor heard a loud boom about 12:40 a.m. and then saw Kelly Lynch’s car smashed into a tree. The neighbor reported a large amount of damage to the front of the vehicle. He also told police he spoke to Lynch, who indicated that she didn’t need any assistance, got back into her car, and drove away. Officers used the neighbor’s description of the vehicle and later found a brown Toyota with front-end damage and deployed air bags in the driveway of a nearby home. The back door of the home was open, but the screen door was closed. The officers could see Lynch in the kitchen, and they heard her say, “Oh, boy. I’m okay. I’m inside my house.” One officer stepped inside the home without first getting Lynch’s permission. The officers asked her if she was okay and then asked her to step out of the house. Once outside, they asked Lynch about her car, but she denied being involved in any kind of accident. Officers smelled alcohol on Lynch’s breath. Lynch was arrested on suspicion of OVI, leaving the scene of an accident, and failure to control. She filed a motion to suppress based on a warrantless search and seizure.
Why this case is important:
The court suppressed the evidence because the officers entered Lynch’s home without a warrant or consent. Warrantless entry into a home should be severely restricted when only a minor offense has been committed. And a search without a warrant is not justified unless an exception applies. Here, neither the “hot pursuit” exception nor the exigent circumstances exception justifies the officers’ entry into Lynch’s home. For the “hot pursuit” doctrine to apply, a peace officer must witness a suspect commit an offense in a public place and then flee into a private place. But the officers didn’t witness the collision; they only learned of it from a neighbor.
And the exigent circumstances exception doesn’t apply, either, because warrantless entry under this exception is allowed only when law enforcement has compelling reasons or exceptional circumstances. Here, the officers believed they had found the suspect who had the accident, Lynch, and saw her inside her home, appearing to be fine. The neighbor who reported the accident also said that Lynch told him she felt fine. There was no emergency of “life or limb” that would have permitted the officers to enter Lynch’s home without a warrant.
Keep in mind:
Both the “hot pursuit” and exigent circumstances exceptions can still apply to misdemeanor offenses; it all depends on the totality of the circumstances. But you must actually witness the fleeing suspect commit the offense, or there must be a serious emergency that would justify not obtaining a warrant.
Visit the Eighth District Court of Appeals
website to view the entire opinion.