Monday, November 28, 2011

Warrantless entry into house is legal under Fourth Amendment

The Court of Appeals has granted summary judgment to police officers who entered someone's home without a warrant. The Second Circuit rules that the officers did this under exigent circumstances as they reasonably believed the plaintiff was inside the house and was armed and dangerous.

The case is Montanez v. Sharoh, a summary order decided on November 9. The Court of Appeals (Katzmann, Wesley and Walker) actually reversed the district court, which granted summary judgment to plaintiff Montanez in this case. That the Court reverses that ruling in favor of plaintiff and instead grants summary judgment to the officers on the basis of qualified immunity in an unpublished summary order only shows how routine rulings like this have become. Last year, Montanez was rejoicing in victory. Today, it's the agony of defeat.

So what happened? The warrantless entry was prompted by a "child welfare check" by the Department of Children and Families. Before they entered the house, the officers were told that Montanez was "armed and dangerous and a convicted felon wanted for weapons and narcotics violations. They were also told to use 'extreme caution' if they located Montanez." When they entered the house, the officers also reason to believe that Montanez was inside. (His presence inside the house creates an exigent circumstance). While plaintiff was a fugitive and no one answered when the police came-a-kocking and called him on the phone, the lights were on at 1:00 a.m. and a side door was unlocked. The police also reasonably thought a child was inside the house (she was at grandma's earlier that day) and that Montanez posed a risk to her. In fact, no one was home. No matter. When the cops entered, they found (and seized) an Uzi and some ammunition. Of course, that stuff was illegal. But the police were legally able to enter the house without a warrant under their objectively reasonable belief that Montanez was inside and posed a serious risk to his children, so the police win the case.

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