CA11: Warrantless search of crawlspace after hostage standoff was reasonable

After a hostage standoff, police officers’ warrantless search of defendant’s crawlspace for other potential hostages was reasonable based on what they knew and didn’t know. United States v. Cooks, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 9775 (11th Cir. Apr. 2, 2019):

In the ordinary case, an arrest warrant doesn’t automatically authorize police to search the arrestee’s residence—the home search requires its own warrant. This isn’t the ordinary case.

The question here is whether police violated the Fourth Amendment when they conducted a warrantless search of the crawlspace in Willie Lee Cooks’s home following a four-hour standoff that the responding officers deemed a hostage situation and that culminated in Cooks’s arrest. Here’s the short version: Rather than submitting to arrest, Cooks barricaded himself in his house, thereby preventing at least two occupants from leaving. Shortly after the police arrived, and as they were trying to coax Cooks out of the residence, they heard what sounded like a power drill being used inside. The officers were able to make contact with one of the occupants, who told them that Cooks was “doing something in a hole in the floor.” When the standoff ended and the officers entered the house several hours later, they found the hole, which had been covered by a piece of plywood that was screwed down from the outside. They pried it up, found that it led to a crawlspace, and discovered there an arsenal of firearms.

As in all Fourth Amendment cases, we must determine the reasonableness of the officers’ actions by reference to what they knew at the time. Just as important here is what the officers didn’t know—specifically, how many additional individuals might be in the house. Although the government has presented several theories to justify the search in light of the officers’ uncertainty, we need address only one here. We hold that the warrantless search of Cooks’s crawlspace was lawful under the exigent-circumstances doctrine, as the officers had probable cause to believe that the hole might contain additional hostages.

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