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United States v. Richardson (2000) – Case Brief Summary (Federal Court)

In United States v. Richardson, 208 F.3d 626 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 910 (2000), police received a 911 telephone call reporting that the defendant had raped and murdered a woman, and that her body could be found in the basement of the defendant's residence. Richardson, 208 F.3d at 627.

The caller identified himself to the 911 operator as an individual living with the defendant. See id. at 628. A week before this call, the police received a similar telephone call reporting a murder at the same address; that call, however, turned out to be a false alarm as no murder victim was found. See id.

In response to the 911 call, police officers went to the defendant's home and conducted a warrantless search of the residence. See id. Although their search failed to uncover a body, police officers did find marijuana, crack cocaine, drug- packing materials, two scales, and a shotgun; therefore the officers arrested the defendant. See id.

The defendant subsequently filed a motion to suppress this evidence. Denying that motion, the district court concluded that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless entry made by police, and then found defendant guilty for unlawfully possessing a firearm and possession with intent to distribute cocaine. See id. at 627-29.

On appeal, the defendant challenged the district court's denial of his motion to suppress, observing that the police had received a false call concerning the defendant a week earlier. See id. at 629-30.

Because of that false call, the defendant argued, there was no reasonable basis for the officers to believe that someone inside the defendant's house needed assistance. See id.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit disagreed.

The Seventh Circuit began its analysis by noting that it had previously "found that exigent circumstances justified a warrantless search when the police reasonably feared for the safety of someone inside the premises." See id. at 629. Quoting Wayne v. United States, 115 U.S. App. D.C. 234, 318 F.2d 205, 212 (D.C. Cir. 1963), it observed, "'the business of policemen and firemen is to act, not to speculate or mediate on whether the report is correct.

People could well die in emergencies if police tried to act with the calm deliberation associated with the judicial process.'" See id. 208 F.3d at 630.

But the Seventh Circuit cautioned, "A police officer's subjective belief that exigent circumstances exist is insufficient to make a warrantless search." See id. at 629.

The test, according to that court, "is objective: 'the government must establish that the circumstances as they appeared at the moment of entry would lead a reasonable, experienced law enforcement officer to believe that someone inside the house, apartment, or hotel room required immediate assistance.'" See id. (quoting United States v. Arch, 7 F.3d 1300, 1304 (7th Cir. 1993)).

In sum, the Seventh Circuit held that police may search a residence without a warrant if they have a reasonable fear for the safety of someone inside the premises, or reasonably believe a person is in need of immediate aid.