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No Warrant Exception For Slow Pursuit into Home of a $14.99 Phone Charger Robber

May 13, 2013
Western Michigan Federal Courts

Two police officers are being sued because they entered Charles Smith's home after he stole a $14.99 (presumably, before tax) phone charger from Walgreens. As the Sixth Circuit acknowledged: "But for the want of $14.99 or a warrant, this case would not exist." In an entertaining published opinion by Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Sutton issued May 10, 2013, the Sixth Circuit completely affirmed the Western District of Michigan, finding that two police officers were not entitled to qualified immunity* and did in fact violate Charles's Fourth Amendment rights. Perhaps the reason for publishing the opinion, the Sixth Circuit clarified that an exception to the warrant requirement does not exist when the police track down a suspect for a minor crime.

After Walgreens alerted the police of Charles's crime of $14.99, the police went to Charles's within-sight house. First, the police followed Charles's brother into the home. After Charles and his mom came downstairs, everyone convened on the back porch. A pat down of Charles revealed only a lighter, so the police asked if they could look inside the house. Charles apparently mumbled something and began to walk inside when the police grabbed him (by crossing the threshold of the doorway) and pulled Charles outside. In the ensuing arrest, Charles alleges that the police used excessive force, and Charles's mom too says the police used excessive force on her when they bumped her.

The officer who admittedly reached into Charles's home violated the Fourth Amendment by doing so. The court did not agree with the officers who argued that two exceptions to the Fourth Amendment applied. First, the "hot pursuit" doctrine did not apply: the police were not in "pursuit" because they were not literally chasing Charles; and it was not "hot" (i.e., an emergency) because "Charles would have remained inside the house, a non-violent person alone with a non-violent phone charger." 

Nor could the police enter to prevent the "imminent destruction of evidence" (think flushing drugs down the toilet). As the Sixth Circuit said "to call this a public-safety exigency gives public safety a bad name." Further, no risk of evidence being destroyed existed. As the Court said: "Tossing the charger out the window would have accomplished little. This was not Venice. It was canal-free Sturgis, Michigan. And flushing a charger down a toilet—or more precisely trying to flush a charger down a toilet—would be more likely to create new problems than eliminate the one at hand." 

In the end, the claims alleging the use of excessive force and a violation of the Fourth Amendment for the first entry into Charles' home will proceed towards a trial to resolve issues of fact between the officers' and the Smiths' version of events.

* Qualified immunity protects police officers making discretionary decisions—essentially recognizing that the police must make on-the-spot decisions without contemplation or reference to a legal treatise.

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