Suspected Burglary Creates “Exigent Circumstances” Which Permit a Warrantless Search

In 2011, Officer Todd Raible was driving an unmarked patrol car through a neighborhood that had been experiencing an increase of daytime burglaries. Officer Raible witnessed two individuals acting suspiciously between two homes and requested backup prior to approaching the suspects. Officer Jorge Carvajal responded to Officer Raible’s request for backup and, when he arrived, the officers approached the individuals. The suspects ran to the back of a home and, after a short scuffle, the suspects were handcuffed. Officer Raible then entered the home’s back door and stepped through a small vestibule to a second door, which led to the home’s interior. Without crossing the threshold, Officer Raible leaned through the second door and shouted, “Sheriff’s office, come out if anybody’s in there, sheriff’s office.” Hearing no answer after about 10 seconds, Officer Raible went back outside.

Believing that they had interrupted an ongoing burglary, the Officers formally arrested the suspects and entered the home’s main structure to check “for additional perpetrators or potential victims.” During the second entry, the officers saw in plain view what they believed to be marijuana and associated drug paraphernalia. Based on the contraband, an affidavit was sworn out in support of a search warrant, which an assistant state attorney approved and a circuit court judge then signed. The officers subsequently conducted a full search of the house, which yielded $18,500, as well as miscellaneous drugs and drug paraphernalia. Charges were not filed related to the money or drugs as it could not be determined whose they were.

The suspects and homeowner filed a complaint that alleged both state tort claims and (under 42 U.S.C. § 1983) the following Fourth Amendment claims: unreasonable-seizure and false-arrest claims against Officer Raible, and the homeowner brought unlawful-entry and unreasonable-search claims against all of the officers involved. Montanez v. Carvajal, 889 F.3d 1202 (11th Cir. 2018). The officers moved for summary judgment on the claims based on qualified immunity. Specifically, the officers argued that the first two warrantless entries into the residence were justified by “exigent circumstances,” or at the very least, that no binding precedent “clearly established” (for qualified-immunity purposes) that those searches were invalid. Further, if those two entries were valid then the subsequent entries must also be permissible.

The Court held that the entries were permissible for two reasons. First, a responding officer will rarely know (or have any real way of knowing) whether he’s rounded up all suspects. Second, the responding officer may discover an injured bystander when investigating a burglary. Therefore, a responding officer may conduct a limited warrantless search of the house to look for potential suspects and victims. Therefore, the Court held that a suspected burglary presents an “exigent circumstance” that justified a warrantless entry and search.

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