Decided: February 15, 2013
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision to exclude evidence that was obtained during a warrantless search. The government argued that the exigent circumstances exception applied to render the evidence admissible, but the Fourth Circuit disagreed noting that the officer’s behavior at the time of the search contradicted the idea that exigent circumstances existed.
On December 31, 2011, police responded to a 911 call regarding a domestic dispute at the home of Joseph Robert Yengel, Jr. (“Yengel”) between Yengel and his wife. Shortly after arriving on the scene, Yengel was arrested and removed from the scene. Sargeant Staton then interviewed Yengel’s wife and Yengel’s mother. Staton learned that Yengel kept a large number of firearms and a “grenade” inside the house. Staton also learned that Yengel’s young son was sleeping inside the house. Staton asked where the “grenade” was, and Yengel’s wife collected a variety of firearms strewn about the master bedroom and asked Staton to remove them. Staton again asked about the location of the grenade; Mrs. Yengel showed Staton a closet inside the guest bedroom that was locked with a combination keypad and thumbprint scanner. Mrs. Yengel did not have the combination lock but told Staton the grenade was inside. Mrs. Yengel gave Staton permission to kick open the door or do whatever he needed to get inside. Staton was able to pry the door open with a screwdriver. Once inside the closet, Staton identified military equipment including gun safes, camouflage, and other weapons. Only after the entry into the closet, Staton ordered the evacuation of the house and surrounding residences. He requested the assistance of an explosive ordnance disposal team. Once the team arrived, they discovered, not a grenade, but a container of smokeless shotgun powder and a partially assembled explosive device attached to a kitchen timer.
Yengel was charged with possession of an unregistered firearm. He moved to suppress the evidence gained from the warrantless search of the locked closet. The district court granted his motion to suppress the evidence, and the Government appealed following an unsuccessful motion for reconsideration. Searches without warrants are presumptively unconstitutional, but the touchstone for a warrantless search inquiry is “reasonableness.” Therefore, there are certain exceptions that will render warrantless evidence admissible in court. However, the court determined that there were no circumstances that would constitute an exigency sufficient to justify the warrantless search of private property. The information available to the officer was limited to what Mrs. Yengel told him and this did not justify a reasonable belief that the grenade was live or could detonate at any moment. Further, the location of the grenade diminished the scope of any possible emergency. Finally, the officer did not evacuate the sleeping son or surrounding area until after the closet had been entered which provides evidence that the officers did not actually think there were emergent circumstances such to justify a warrantless entry.
-Jennifer B. Routh