Monday, October 31, 2011

Officers violate Fourth Amendment in gun seizure

Can the police just march into your house without a warrant? Sometimes they can. That does not mean they have the right to seize the gun in the bedroom, though.

The case is U.S. v. Simmons, decided on October 26. This case implicates the Fourth Amendment, which protects the sanctity of the home. Robert Simmons's roommate, Jamar Vaz, told the police that Simmons flashed a handgun during a dispute. The police accompanied Vaz into the apartment so that Vaz could retrieve his stuff. Once they got inside the apartment, the police conducted a protective sweep, making sure no one would jump out of nowhere with a gun. They saw Simmons lying in bed with a gun on the nightstand. They got Simmons out of bed and made him wait in the hallway. The police were now safe. They went into the bedroom and got the gun, and since he already had a felony record, Simmons was thus charged with unlawful possession.

The Court of Appeals (Parker and Pooler [Winter dissents]) says the gun seizure violated the Fourth Amendment. While the "public safety" exception to the Fourth Amendment allowed the police to ask Simmons about the gun without reading him any Miranda rights, the police had no right to then enter the bedroom to retrieve the gun. By this point, Simmons is standing in the hallway in his underwear, surrounded by police officers. The public safety threat is gone. If the police want to retrieve the gun, they can get a warrant. They did not do so, which means the gun is suppressed as evidence. Here's what Judge Parker writes:

Thus, before conducting the search, the officers had effectively allayed the safety concerns that justified their initial questioning of Simmons and had, by exercising control over a compliant occupant and the surrounding premises, neutralized any threat that Simmons or the gun may have initially posed. In doing so, the officers also eliminated the possibility of the destruction of evidence. Under these circumstances, there simply was no "urgent need" to further search the home for the gun without a warrant.

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