M.D.Ala.: Emergency aid exception doesn’t apply to justify entry where victims are accounted for outside

The government didn’t meet its burden of showing the emergency aid exception applied where all the purported victims were accounted for and outside the apartment they wanted to search. The protective sweep doctrine as an alternative doesn’t apply here because that requires the police be on the premises lawfully in the first place. United States v. Turner, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 59923 (M.D. Ala. Mar. 9, 2018):

Even if the undersigned could conclude that the first hurdle was jumped [a reasonable belief that someone is seriously injured and in need of immediate aid], the undersigned would also have to conclude that officers possessed a reasonable belief that a seriously-injured individual was located inside Defendant Turner’s apartment. Thus, assuming arguendo that officers reasonably believed that an individual was seriously injured as a result of the altercation, the undersigned turns to examine the evidence as it relates to whether officers possessed a reasonable belief that such an individual was located inside the apartment. Importantly, there is no evidence to indicate that any violent activity occurred inside the apartment; instead, the evidence points directly otherwise. First, the evidence from the 911 call indicates that two men were involved in an altercation; that one of the men shot the other; and that the shooter picked up the gun and ran. This evidence supports the conclusion that the caller saw the altercation outside of the apartment. Second, the physical evidence at the scene indicates that the altercation occurred outside. Indeed, outside of the apartment, there was pine straw strewn about and shell casings lying on the ground. There was no evidence of forced entry into the apartment, or bullet holes riddling the exterior walls. Finally, officers did not report hearing a commotion or cries for help from inside the apartment. In fact, there is no evidence that any noise of any kind was heard by officers as they approached the apartment door. Therefore, the undersigned cannot conclude that, under these circumstances, officers held a reasonable belief that a seriously-injured individual was located inside Defendant Turner’s apartment.

In addition to the lack of facts supporting a reasonable belief that a seriously-injured individual was inside Defendant Turner’s apartment, the undersigned would also note that there were no indicia of an urgent, ongoing emergency when officers arrived at the scene. While 911 calls are undoubtedly a reliable source to alert officers that an emergency situation is transpiring, the 911 caller here indicated that the disturbance had abated, for all intents and purposes, when the shooter fled the scene with his posse in a vehicle. There were no reports of continued gun shots or an ongoing altercation from other callers. There were no reports that the potential shooter or any of the individuals with him had returned to the scene to exact more mayhem. When officers arrived, both Defendant Turner and Ms. Farris were outside of the apartment and, while a bit frantic in their communication of information, they were able to clearly relay to officers the events that had transpired. Thus, to the extent indicia of an urgent, ongoing emergency is required in order to conclude that the emergency-aid exception applies, those signs are absent, in this case. As such, the undersigned would be strained to conclude that the lack of emergency, particularly considered in combination with the lack of evidence suggesting that anyone was seriously injured inside the apartment, warrants application of the emergency-aid exception.

To be sure, preserving life is of the utmost importance when officers respond to a scene that indicates an individual is in need of emergency aid. In those situations, the Fourth Amendment must give way and allow officers to enter a home in order to provide immediate assistance. However, the need to provide emergency aid is an exception to the warrant requirement, and the Government must meet its burden of showing that officers had a reasonable belief that a seriously-injured individual inside a dwelling is in need of emergency aid in order to justify a warrantless entry. The undersigned believes that such a reasonable belief is not formed merely from a 911 call reporting shots fired, and from reports that something—not necessarily even a scuffle—began inside an apartment without further indication that violence actually occurred inside the apartment. This is particularly so when all potential victims are accounted for outside of the apartment. To hold otherwise would give much liberty to the police, under the guise of the undeniably sympathetic search for possible victims of violent behavior, to enter residences without a warrant, and would erode the narrowly-constructed emergency-aid exception. With that concern in mind, the undersigned concludes that the Government has failed to meet its burden of showing that the emergency-aid exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement applies.

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