Supreme Court Hears Case on Police Entry

A court case that began with a simple complaint from a neighbor about a loud party has now landed in the Supreme Court. The justices will hear arguments that examine when, and for what reasons, police are authorized to enter a home.

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The U.S. Supreme Court today hears arguments in a case testing when police can cite emergency circumstances to enter and search your home. The case being examined today centers on a fairly typical disturbance.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.


At about three in the morning on July 23rd, 2000, police in Brigham City, Utah, got a call complaining of a loud party. When police got to the house, they didn't hear a party but what they later described as a commotion that sounded like an altercation of some kind.

They didn't knock at the front door or ring the bell. Rather, looking in the front window and seeing only a beer bottle on the ledge inside, three officers walked down the driveway to the back of the house. Peering over the backyard fence, they saw two teenage boys drinking beer, and heard one of them say he's had too much to drink.

The sounds of the fight continued apparently from inside, so the police entered the backyard and through the back window of the house they saw four adults trying to restrain a teenager against the refrigerator and yelling at him to calm down. The teen, at one point, wrested a hand free and punched one of the adults, at which point the police entered the house and the fight dissipated.

The police then handcuffed the teenager and the adults got upset, demanding that the police leave. Instead, police arrested everyone, charging them variously with disorderly conduct, intoxication, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

The Utah courts, without exception, ruled that the police entry into the house without a warrant was illegal since there were no exigent circumstances. The Utah Supreme Court said that the police were motivated by a desire to arrest and that there was no threat to life or limb; and that police did not even give medical assistance to the guy who'd been popped in the nose. Thus, everything the police saw there was inadmissible and the charges could not be pursued.

The city appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear arguments in the case today. At issue is what constitutes emergency circumstances justifying police entry and search of a home without a warrant.

In the past, the court has ruled that such warrantless searches are justified if police are in hot pursuit of a suspect or there's a danger evidence will be destroyed, or if police assistance is needed for the immediate protection of life. So, how do the courts evaluate whether any of those justifications exist? Do they examine police motives? Or is there an objective standard of what constitutes an emergency?

The City of Brigham, backed by the Bush administration and law enforcement groups, contends that any fight where someone gets punched in the face has the potential to deteriorate into a life-threatening situation. The people who were arrested counter that there was no threat of serious harm here, that nobody needed medical assistance, and that the charges were all minor misdemeanors.

If all that's needed to justify a search is a policeman's statement of emergency need, argue the defendants, than almost any warrantless police entry into a home can be justified. Now the Supreme Court must decide.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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