United States v. Laudermilt, No. 11-4624

Decided: May 3, 2012

In February 2011, police officers in West Virginia responded to a domestic violence situation after multiple 911 calls.  The officers arrived at Defendant Jordan Laudermilt’s home where they found the Defendant’s girlfriend and her family outside.  The girlfriend explained that the Defendant was inside his house with a gun.  Shortly thereafter, the Defendant walked out on the front porch and began threatening the girlfriend and her family.  Though the officers never witnessed the Defendant with actual possession of the gun, they subsequently arrested the Defendant on his porch, conducted a protective sweep of the house, and recovered the Defendant’s gun.  The federal government prosecuted Laudermilt for being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a).  Before trial the district court ordered the suppression of the firearm as admissible evidence, concluding that it was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Circuit reversed the trial court’s suppression order, holding that the officer’s conduct in sweeping the house and seizing the gun comported with the Fourth Amendment’s proscription against unreasonable searches and seizures.  According to the court, the officers were justified in their protective sweep of the Defendant’s house under Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325 (1990), because the officers were dealing with a dangerous situation involving domestic threats, an unaccounted-for weapon, and information that the Defendant’s brother was still inside the home.  Moreover, the court found that the justification for the protective sweep did not cease the instant the officers secured the Defendant’s brother.   Instead, the court found that confusion still existed about the nature of the situation and that “unaccounted-for third parties with access to firearms may present a grave danger to [the] arresting officers.”  The court’s opinion also seems to suggest that because the arrest arose out of the Defendant’s threat to kill his girlfriend with a gun that was known to be in the house, the officers had more latitude in extending the scope of their sweep to find the weapon.  Finally, the court added that the officers’ actions in seizing the gun were reasonable even if the sweep should have ended when the brother was secured.  This conclusion was due to the fact that the brother was a special needs child and it was appropriate to confiscate the Defendant’s gun before releasing the child back into the house.

Full Opinion

-John C. Bruton, III

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