No Probable Cause, No Problem Says Second District Court of Appeals

If you have ever considered manufacturing your own fireworks at your residence (and who hasn’t, right?), you may want to think again.  In a recent decision by the Second District Court of Appeals, Dayton Police officers were permitted to enter a home’s detached garage and observe its occupants making fireworks inside without the benefit of a warrant, and without even determining whether officers had probable cause to believe that a crime was being committed.

In State v. Griffin, the police had received an anonymous tip that two individuals at Griffin’s residence were “making bombs and selling them to neighborhood kids.”  Police were not immediately dispatched to the home. Rather the call was placed on a list of “medium to lower priority calls” that is logged into police cruiser computers.  This list is evidently maintained and updated every so often so that when police have the time and opportunity to investigate, they can choose then do so.  Leaving for a second the entire series of questions surrounding the fact that giving bombs to children was an “medium to low priority” for Dayton Police, let’s discuss why officers were allowed to enter the detached garage on nothing more than the anonymous tip and some observations they were able to make from the driveway.

Two different officers independently responded to the call and arrived simultaneously at Griffin’s home.  The officers testified they could view from the street that someone was in the garage.  The garage door was apparently open “about waist high.” The officers simply walked up the driveway and, as they approached the garage, claimed to have observed a couch, several tables with mixing bowls, gun powder on the tables and the floor, as well as someone walking back and forth between the tables.   The officers immediately entered the garage and arrested the two individuals for the illegal manufacture of fireworks.

It is undisputed that the officers did not have a warrant, based upon probable cause, to search the garage. Nor did the officers receive consent to enter prior to making contact with Griffin.  In overruling Griffin’s motion to suppress evidence, the trial court determined that once officers observed gunpowder strewn across the tables, the officers had probable cause to enter.  Apparently, viewing gun power was enough for the trial court to find probable cause existed that a crime was being committed – the illegal manufacture of fireworks.  Moreover, the officers did not need to first obtain a warrant because an emergency existed which excused the general requirement that searches be performed only upon issuance of a warrant from a neutral and detached magistrate.

The general rule is that a search of a home without a warrant, even if based upon probable cause that crime is being committed, is per se unreasonable and, therefore, unconstitutional under the 4th Amendment.  However, one of the several exceptions to the warrant requirement is “exigent circumstances” or when an emergency exists where it is reasonable for the officers to immediate perform the search.  Nonetheless, there must still be probable cause that a crime or evidence of crime is located within the home to dispense with a warrant.

In sustaining the trial court’s ruling, the Appellate court did not base its decision on the fact that the officers had probable cause of a crime. In fact, the Appellate Court did not even reach that decision. And for good reason, it is highly unlikely that having gun powder and mixing bowls in your garage is evidence of a crime.  Instead, the appellate court ruled the search constitutional based upon another exception to the warrant requirement, the “community caretaking/emergency aid exception.”  Under this doctrine, officers are privileged to enter a home without a warrant or probable cause if (1) police have reasonable grounds to believe that there was an immediate need to protect the lives or property of themselves or others; (2) the circumstances, as viewed objectively, justify the warrantless entry; and (3) there is a reasonable basis, short of probable cause, to associate the place to be searched with an emergency.  The anonymous tip, corroborated by the officer observations once on the property, were enough for the court to find the community caretaking exception applied.

The Court states in its opinion that “[while] we may question whether, before the officers entered the garage, there was probable cause to believe a crime was being committed … such determination is not controlling in an analysis of the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment.”  The panel goes on to find that under the particular circumstances presented in this case, officers reasonably entered the garage to ensure that the apparent explosives did not pose an immediate danger to the officers and others in the area.

The Court was quick to emphasize, however, that it was not insinuating through its holding that every corroborated report of a dangerous weapon or ordinance is sufficient to justify a warrantless entry into a home, citing State v. Boyd (a case in which our firm was responsible for the appeal and successfully established that the warrantless search of a home and seizure of a gun was unconstitutional).  The Court may as well have said “this is a unique set of facts and, based upon all of the circumstances, we can’t fault the police for acting.”  I take the decision as saying Bombs + Kids = enter the garage and stop this.  Therefore, I’m not confident this decision will have very much impact long-term.  As much as the Fourth Amendment has been eroded by judicially-created exceptions over the years, this decision doesn’t really do any more damage to our constitutional protections.

However, this case is a good reminder that notwithstanding the Fourth Amendment, sometimes police don’t even have to establish probable cause to enter your home! And there are so many exceptions to the warrant requirement that it is indeed rare these days for officers on the scene to even bother to seek a warrant, knowing that their actions will likely be excused away as long as the bad guys get caught.  The real lesson here is that if you are doing something you shouldn’t, don’t expose the activities to the public by leaving the door halfway opened.  You are only setting yourself up for a search that will ultimately be upheld. In other words, actively protect your Fourth Amendment rights as there are a whole lot of ways courts can get around having to do so for you.

Posted on July 27, 2013, by Charles W. Morrison

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