Exigent Circumstance Entry for Misdemeanor Is Legal

by Charles Gillingham

A case from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals caught the legal update's eye last summer because the court ruled, in essence, that exigent circumstance entries when in pursuit of a suspect wanted for a misdemeanor were illegal. The Court declined to grant qualified immunity to an officer who, in pursuit of a suspect wanted for delaying and obstructing an officer, made entry into a closed yard and injured a resident. The Court held that the officer was "plainly incompetent" because he was only chasing a misdemeanant.

The case caught my eye because it was so contrary to California law the decision boggled the mind. Fortunately, the United States Supreme Court reversed in an unanimous unsigned opinion, signaling that the Ninth Circuit decision was so wrong that it didn't even need to explain.

FACTS

In Stanton v. Sims 113 S.Ct 3, Officer Stanton was dispatched to a known gang area on a disturbance call. Upon reaching the location they noticed three people walking in the street, two of whom went into an apartment complex. When they saw the patrol car, the third person ran toward a house. Stanton yelled "stop, police" but the subject did not stop. Stanton began pursuit for a delaying and obstructing arrest.

The house was surrounded by a six-foot tall fence. The suspect went in a gate and it closed behind him. Officer Stanton kicked the gate open. One of the occupants, Sims, was standing near the gate when it flung open and was injured. Officer Stanton testified that he was in hot pursuit of the suspect. The Ninth Circuit Court Ruled that the enclosed area was part of the curtilage of the house. She sued the officer, lost in the federal district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and the US Supreme Court reversed the Ninth. Officer Stanton was entitled to qualified immunity.


CALIFORNIA CASES

In People v. Lloyd (1989) 216 Cal.App. 3d 1425, officers went to the front door of a residence to issue a traffic citation to Calvin. Calvin refused to let the officers enter the residence and closed the door in the officer's faces. In this case, Calvin was outside and had just gotten out of his car and locked it when the uniformed officer requested his driver's license and registration. This detention, adequately justified by the traffic violations committed in the officer's presence, clearly began in a public place. Calvin refused to comply with the identification request, quickly walked away from the officer and proceeded first into a neighbor's house and then into his own. With no right to resist this lawful detention, Calvin's conduct in quickly walking away from the officer rather than complying with the demand for identification provided the officer with probable cause to arrest him. (CA Pen. Code, § 148.) Under these circumstances, the officer's "hot pursuit" into the house to prevent the suspect from frustrating the arrest which had been set in motion in a public place constitutes a proper exception to the warrant requirement.

A similar result was reached in People v. Abes (1985) 174 Cal.App.3d 796 where the suspect was in a stairwell outside her apartment at the time the police officer identified himself, started up the stairs and ordered her to come down. The suspect looked in the officer's direction, turned and fled into the apartment, closing the door behind her. The court found that under the totality of the circumstances, the police officer had reasonable suspicion that the suspect was connected with criminal activity sufficient to justify a detention for reasonable investigative procedures. This ripened into probable cause to arrest when the suspect resisted the lawful detention by fleeing from the police officer. A suspect has no right to resist a lawful detention. Inasmuch as the police had probable cause to arrest the suspect as she entered her apartment and closed the door, the court held that she could not frustrate the arrest by fleeing from a public place into her home regardless of the charge.

Two things to take away from this case: 1. A warrantless entry to a dwelling may be made in hot pursuit of an offense that took place in public with the suspect fleeing to a residence; 2. The Ninth and the U.S. Supreme Court have now held that the curtilage of the residence in essence applies to the area immediately appurtenant to the residence, the front, back and side yards. Moreover, the court is no longer drawing a distinction between the inside and outside of a residence. A "search" takes place when you enter the curtilage and you must have a legal right to be in that location. (See the Legal Udate on Florida v. Jardines.)