On behalf of Steven W. Thayer, P.S. Criminal Defense Attorney on Sunday, January 20, 2019.
The Fourth Amendment provides protection against government overreach when law enforcement searches for evidence of a crime. The home and its immediate surroundings, often described as the curtilage of the home, are given strong protections under the warrant requirement. In most situations, law enforcement is required to obtain a warrant based upon a showing of probable cause in order to lawfully conduct a search. The courts, however, recognize several exceptions to the warrant requirement, including:
- Search incident to arrest
- Plain view
- Automobile exception
- Exigent circumstances
Is There An Emergency To Justify A Warrantless Search?
In State v. Morgavi, police and prosecutors sought to rely on the exigent circumstances exception to justify the search of a garage to support a felony marijuana possession charge. On several occasions over the course of roughly one week a police officer went to a residence while investigating alleged malicious mischief incidents. On the first three visits, the officer found the home vacant, with no cars visibly parked at the premises, and with the windows and doors at the premises closed.
The officer returned a fourth time and observed a car parked in the driveway. Police claim that the driver’s side window was rolled down. Doors to the garage were open. The door to the residence and an inside door to the basement were propped open. Police claim that a hinge on a door to the house also appeared to be broken. The officer, who was looking to obtain statements from a person for past acts jumped to the conclusion that open doors suggested that a burglary was in progress or recently occurred at the residence. The officer called for backup.
After backup arrived, the two officers entered the garage without a warrant to investigate the alleged burglary. They allegedly found marijuana inside. They moved from the garage to the porch, where they claim to have seen plastic buckets, a Mylar curtain and wiring that the officers believe was consistent with halide lights. They knocked on the porch door and were invited into the home.
Police questioned the man about the alleged acts of malicious mischief. Then they turned to the marijuana. They asked to search the home and garage. Authorities say the man consented to a search of the home and garage, Police found additional marijuana and the man was charged with felony marijuana possession.
Challenging A Search Based On Alleged Exigent Circumstances
At trial, criminal defense attorney Steven W. Thayer argued to suppress the marijuana evidence obtained in the warrantless search. The state argued that the search was justified under the exigent circumstances exception. The trial court admitted the evidence and after further proceedings a conviction was entered.
On appeal, attorney Steven W. Thayer fought to have the conviction overturned. He argued that there was a sufficient basis to justify the search under the emergency exception. The prosecution relied on cases where a private citizen witnessed an alleged crime and called police. Police asked for consent to search after conducting a warrantless search of the garage — consent was not an issue. The appellate panel believed that the officers subjectively believed that a burglary was in progress or recently occurred. However, the appellate court found that the officers did not have a reasonable objective basis to support a warrantless search.
Open doors on a garage and porch, an open car window on a parked car in August, and a potentially poorly maintained door hinge are not sufficient to objectively conclude that a crime is taking place, or has been recently completed. The appellate judges reasoned that the observations were objectively consistent with a variety of legal or innocent possibilities. The felony conviction was reversed on appeal.
In this case, the officer went to the property to question the man about past events, not a current alleged burglary. The case highlights how complex analysis of the details can be in building a strong defense. It is critical for a defense lawyer to look past the superficial facts to compartmentalize every detail to safeguard constitutional rights and present a thorough criminal defense.