Monday, August 22, 2011

Warrantless Entry Violates Fourth Amendment, Will Later Consent Avoid Suppression?

US v. Hill: Police obtained a warrant for Hill's arrest on drug charges. They went to his last known address, a townhouse he shared with his girlfriend and their son. However, from prior experience the officers knew that Hill only spent about half of his time there and one officer speculated there was only a 20% chance he would be there (a previous visit to the home on a 911 hang-up led Hill's girlfriend to tell the officers he knew he had an arrest warrant out against him). Officers knocked on the door, but no one answered. They could hear what sounded like the TV playing inside. One officer called Hill's wife, who was at work. She said the only person who would be there was her sister. She did not give the officers' permission to enter.

Nonetheless, one of them turned the knob, opened the door, and saw Hill (and a friend) sitting on the couch. Officers did a protective search of the home, finding some marijuana. One officer went to obtain a search warrant. Before he returned, however, Hill's girlfriend arrived home. She may or may not have consented to a search of the home at that time. Regardless, a search was done by the time the warrant arrived. Officers found a gun and more drugs in the home, leading to Hill being charged with drug and firearm offenses. Hill moved to suppress the evidence, but the motion was denied. He entered a conditional guilty plea and was sentenced to 120 months in prison.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the denial of the motion to suppress. First, the court held that the officers did not have sufficient evidence to suggest that Hill was actually in the home to execute the arrest warrant. Hill conceded he resided there (he had to in order to assert a Fourth Amendment protection), but the court held there was not sufficient evidence from which the officers could conclude he was actually there. Second, the court concluded that there were no exigent circumstances present that would justify entry into the home without a warrant. Third, the court held that Hill's girlfriend did consent to a search once she arrived at the home. However, the court did not decide whether the consent dissipated the taint of the initial illegal entry, an issue the district court did not reach. It remanded to the district court for further proceedings on that issue.

Judge Agee dissented, arguing that the majority did not give sufficient deference to the district court's finding of facts. When viewed with the proper deference, there was no basis for overturning the district court's ruling.

Congrats to the Defender office in Eastern Virginia on the win!

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