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Fourth Amendment Musings

Officers are often faced with fact patterns in the field that have not been specifically addressed by case law. Sometimes, the best officers can do is be familiar with those fact patterns which have been decided and act reasonably within those holdings. Illinois v. McArthur, 531 US 326 is a case worth reviewing, not just for the holding based on the fact pattern but also for what the Court said about ambiguous situations.

Prohibition from entry to dwelling while seeking a warrant
Tera McArthur asked two police officers to accompany her to the trailer where she lived with her husband, Charles, so that they could keep the peace while she removed her belongings. The two officers arrived with Tera at the trailer at about 3:15 p.m. Tera went inside where Charles was present. The officers remained outside.

When Tera emerged after collecting her possessions, she spoke to one of the officers outside and suggested he check the trailer because “Chuck had dope in there” and added she had seen Chuck “slid[e] some dope underneath the couch.”

The officer knocked on the trailer door, told Charles what Tera had said, and asked for permission to search the trailer, which Charles denied. The other officer then went to get a search warrant.

Charles, who by this time was also on the porch, was told that he could not reenter the trailer unless a police officer accompanied him. Charles subsequently reentered the trailer two or three times (to get cigarettes and to make phone calls), and each time the officer stood just inside the door to observe what Charles did.

They obtained the warrant by about 5:00 p.m. Under the sofa, the officers found a marijuana pipe, a box for marijuana (called a “one-hitter” box), and a small amount of marijuana. They then arrested Charles.

The Holding
The Fourth Amendment says that the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” U. S. Const., Amdt. 4. Its “central requirement” is one of reasonableness. In order to enforce that requirement, the Court has interpreted the Amendment as establishing rules and presumptions designed to control conduct of law enforcement officers that may significantly intrude upon privacy interests. Sometimes those rules require warrants. The Court has held that in “the ordinary case,” seizures of personal property are “unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment,” without more, “unless . . . accomplished pursuant to a judicial warrant,” issued by a neutral magistrate after finding probable cause. United States v. Place, 462 U. S. 696, 701 (1983).

The Court went on to remind there are exceptions to the warrant requirement. When faced with special law enforcement needs, diminished expectations of privacy, minimal intrusions, or the like, the Court has found that certain general, or individual, circumstances may render a warrantless search or seizure reasonable: search of automobile supported by probable cause, stops at drunk driver checkpoint, temporary seizure of luggage based on reasonable suspicion, temporary detention of suspect without arrest warrant to prevent flight and protect officers while executing search warrant, temporary stop and limited search for weapons based on reasonable suspicion.

This case involves a plausible claim of specially pressing or urgent law enforcement need, i. e., “exigent circumstances” (“[T]he exigencies of the circumstances” may permit temporary seizure without warrant); (warrantless search for suspect and weapons reasonable where delay posed grave danger). Moreover, the restraint at issue was tailored to that need, being limited in time and scope, and avoiding significant intrusion into the home itself, (“`[T]he chief evil against which the . . . Fourth Amendment is directed’ ” is warrantless entry and search of home) Consequently, rather than employing a per se rule of unreasonableness, we balance the privacy-related and law enforcement-related concerns to determine if the intrusion was reasonable.

The Court found this restraint reasonable, in light of the following circumstances: First, the police had probable cause to believe that McArthur’s trailer home contained evidence of a crime and contraband, namely, unlawful drugs. The police had had an opportunity to speak with Tera McArthur and make at least a very rough assessment of her reliability. They knew she had had a firsthand opportunity to observe her husband’s behavior, in particular with respect to the drugs at issue. And they thought, with good reason, that her report to them reflected that opportunity.

Second, the police had good reason to fear that, unless restrained, McArthur would destroy the drugs before they could return with a warrant. They reasonably might have thought that McArthur realized that his wife knew about his marijuana stash; observed that she was angry or frightened enough to ask the police to accompany her; saw that after leaving the trailer she had spoken with the police; and noticed that she had walked off with one policeman while leaving the other outside to observe the trailer. They reasonably could have concluded that McArthur, consequently suspecting an imminent search, would, if given the chance, get rid of the drugs fast.

Third, the police made reasonable efforts to reconcile their law enforcement needs with the demands of personal privacy. They neither searched the trailer nor arrested McArthur before obtaining a warrant. Rather, they imposed a significantly less restrictive restraint, preventing McArthur only from entering the trailer unaccompanied. They left his home and his belongings intact-until a neutral Magistrate, finding probable cause, issued a warrant.

Fourth, the police imposed the restraint for a limited period of time, namely, two hours which was reasonably necessary to obtain a warrant and finally police entry was not necessary to eliminate the exigency of destruction of evidence.

It is clear from this decision and from subsequent decisions, that prohibiting an individual from entering a residence in anticipation of the destruction of evidence is a behavior that does not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment.


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