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An Ongoing Emergency? The Continued Importance of the Warrant Requirement

The critical element of so many criminal cases is not the substantive criminal law itself, but the propriety of the procedures the police employ in obtaining evidence. In general, the law—which flows from the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution—is abundantly clear that the police cannot search a person’s home without a warrant. And to obtain a warrant, the police must make a showing before a magistrate that there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed. This rule exists to protect citizens’ reasonable expectations of privacy and to limit the otherwise unlimited powers of law enforcement. However, there are several well-recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement. For example, if the safety of a police officer is threatened, the police are authorized to search the premises in order to conduct a “protective sweep.” Any evidence they happen to uncover during such a sweep is fair game. In addition, if the police reasonably believe that there is an ongoing emergency taking place inside someone’s home, they are authorized to enter in order to give assistance or prevent violence. Likewise, evidence they happen to discover in the process of aiding in the emergency is fair game. But what are the limits, if any, on what constitutes a reasonable belief in an ongoing emergency?

An Example from Federal Court

We can look at the 2013 case of United States v. Timmann for an example of the police going too far. In that case, the defendant was arrested for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. While searching his home, the police found the defendant’s gun and ammunition, ran his criminal background, and found that he could not legally possess the weapon. The police had received a call some 39 hours earlier from a neighbor who reported that, upon returning home from a business trip, she’d found several suspicious holes in her walls, which she believed to be bullet holes. When the police arrived, the neighbor and building manager both indicated that they believed the gun that had left the bullet holes belonged to Mr. Timmann. The building manager provided a key to his apartment. Mr. Timmann was not at home, and attempts to contact him failed. The police, however, simply entered his apartment. They saw no signs of struggle, nothing out of order, no blood, nothing wrong. They searched the entire apartment and found Mr. Timmann’s illegal firearm.

Before trial on the weapons charge, Mr. Timmann’s lawyer wisely filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that the search of the apartment was unconstitutional because the police needed a warrant. The government countered that the search was justified under the “ongoing emergency” exception to the warrant requirement. The police, the district attorney’s office argued, were reasonably justified in believing that there was an emergency based on the neighbor’s discovery of the bullet holes. Although the trial court judge agreed with the government, its ruling was ultimately reversed on appeal. The evidence—i.e., the gun itself—would be suppressed, and it would be extremely difficult for the government to prosecute the charge without it

Get an Attorney Who Understands Fourth Amendment Law

This case perfectly illustrates the continuing importance of the Fourth Amendment—and the law of police procedure generally—in protecting the rights of criminal defendants against illegal warrantless searches. If you’re facing weapons charges, get an attorney like Miami based Jeffrey S. Weiner, P.A., who knows how to fight for your rights.

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