Oregon appeals court rules against police forceful entry into home

The Oregon Court of Appeals issued a decision prohibiting police officers from forcefully entering the home of an individual whom they believed operated a vehicle while intoxicated. Finding no emergency where the suspect was under the influence and had locked himself and his seven-year old child into their home, the Court ruled that the officers were required by the Fourth Amendment to obtain a warrant.

In the matter of State v. Sullivan, the defendant was observed by a clerk to be under the influence of alcohol while checking out of a grocery store with his seven-year-old son. The clerk followed the defendant out of the store and recorded the license plate number of the defendant’s vehicle. The clerk forwarded that information to police, which located the defendant’s home address and immediately responded.

An officer arrived at the defendant’s home address and observed the defendant’s car and a man yelling to a young boy in slurred speech. After the officer ordered the defendant to stop, the defendant pushed his son up the stairs of the apartment building, slammed the door shut, and closed the blinds in the apartment unit. The officer, joined by two other officers, immediately approached began to pound on the door to the apartment, but there was no response. After speaking with dispatch and his sergeant, the officer discovered that the defendant had a concealed weapons permit. He then received permission to forcefully enter the premises under the premise that the child’s safety was at risk. The officers then kicked the door down and drew their guns to enter the apartment .The defendant approached and was arrested, and subsequently refused to submit to a blood-alcohol test.

Before his trial, the defendant’s counsel filed a motion to suppress all evidence derived from the home entry, claiming that the officers violated both his state constitutional rights as well as his Fourth Amendment right to privacy against unreasonable searches and seizures. According to the defendant, the officers had no authority or justification to forcefully enter his home without first obtaining a warrant. The trial judge disagreed with the defendant, on the basis that the defendant’s child was in immediate risk of harm, thereby warranting police interference even without a warrant.

The Court of Appeals recognized that the trial court implicitly relied on the doctrine of the emergency aid, which is an exception to the warrant requirement where there is an objectively reasonable belief that warrantless entry is required to provide immediate aid or assistance to someone who is suffering or is threatened with suffering serious harm. The Court of Appeals, however, did not find that the circumstances known to the officers were sufficient to form an objectively reasonable belief that the defendant’s son was at risk of suffering imminent harm to the child. The officers had merely received reports that the defendant appeared intoxicated, and had only observed the child being urged into the apartment home by the defendant-father. From these circumstances alone, the Court of Appeals concluded, there is no reason to believe that the defendant posed a risk of harm to his son.

Although the Oregon Court resolved this issue only under state law, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has previously found that a warrantless entry into a suspect’s home is a violation of the suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. See Com. v. Forde, 367 Mass. 798 (1975). A similar result is expected in the Massachusetts courts when the same question is considered under article 14 of the Massachusetts constitution.

Another way to have approached this case is to have challenged the basis on which the officers believed they had probable cause to enter. In order to receive a warrant to enter, or to enter a home without a warrant, the officers must first establish a reasonable belief based on specific articulable facts that a crime had been committed or was about to be committed, and that the defendant is the perpetrator. Here the officers were relying on a store clerk’s brief observations of a man with a child checking out of a grocery store. The defense attorney could have moved to dismiss this case on the grounds that neither the clerk’s observations, nor the officer’s very brief observations, were sufficient to establish probable cause. A trained and knowledgeable defense attorney is very valuable in such cases where officers act out of a hunch and speculation, rather than specific and articulable evidence.

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