Evidence Suppressed Where Police Entered Home Without a Search Warrant

In the federal case of United States v. Harris, police officers entered the accused person's home without a search warrant in order to look for another person. Their entry was illegal, and the evidence that they seized was suppressed. The Court said:

"In the present case, the Task Force possessed an arrest warrant for Thornton when they went to Harris’ home. Therefore, the primary issue before the Court is whether law enforcement agents had “reason to believe” that Thornton, the subject of a valid arrest warrant, resided at and was presently within 3347 Eleanor Street. Based on the circumstances, the Court finds that the Task Force did not have a reasonable belief that the subject of the arrest warrant was residing at and located within 3347 Eleanor Street.

The Government argues that the Task Force reasonably believed Thornton was living at 3347 Eleanor Street because several individuals stated that Thornton was seen around Eleanor Street. The Government supports its position with two cases from the Fifth Circuit, United States v. Route, 104 F.3d 59 (5th Cir. 1997) and United States v. Barrera, 464 F.3d 496 (5th Cir. 2006). Additionally, the Government analogizes this case to a Tenth Circuit decision, United States v. Denson, 775 F.3d 1214 (10th Cir. 2014).

In Route, police entered Route’s home based on an arrest warrant for a third party, Crossley. 104 F.3d at 61-62. Route moved to suppress the evidence in the house, arguing that police did not have reason to believe Crossley resided at and was presently within the residence. Id. The arresting officer relied on Crossley’s credit card applications, water and electricity bills, vehicle registration, and mailing address which all listed the particular residence that police searched. Id. at 62 n. 1. The Fifth Circuit held that the arresting officer had performed sufficient due diligence in concluding that Crossley lived at the particular residence. Id. at 62-63.

In Barrera, an officer attempted to execute an arrest warrant for Jose Barrera, a drug trafficker known to carry a gun. 464 F.3d at 497. The officer went to the address provided by Jose’s probation officer, but a visit to this location revealed Jose no longer lived there. Id. at 497. The officer then learned that Jose had been arrested at a specific address in Laredo, Texas, four months earlier, and provided the bail bondsman with the same address as his place of residence on the bond paperwork. Id. The Laredo police informed the officer that Jose was known to drive three specific vehicles, all three of which were located at the identified address. Id. at 497-98. When someone left the residence using one of the three vehicles, police conducted a traffic stop and determined that the driver was Jose’s brother. Id. at 498. Police entered the residence, found a firearm, and charged the defendant with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Id. at 498-99. The Fifth Circuit determined that the officer’s investigation provided him with a concrete reason to believe that Jose resided at and was within the particular residence, and the evidence did not support a belief that Jose was a mere guest at his brother’s residence. Id. at 504.

The Government also relies on a Tenth Circuit case that found officers had a reasonable belief that the subject of an arrest warrant was residing at and presently within a residence. In Denson, the Court found five facts that, in combination, were sufficient to establish that the subject of an arrest warrant was residing at and presently within a particular location: (1) Denson had recently opened a utility account at the relevant address; (2) police were unaware of any other address for Denson; (3) Denson had not reported any earnings, which suggested he was out of work and might be home during a workday; (4) Denson had absconded from probation and was hiding from law enforcement; and (5) the electric meter at the address was going faster than normal, suggesting someone was probably home. United States v. Denson, 775 F.3d 1214, 1217-18 (10th Cir. 2014).

In the present case, the Task Force lacked concrete evidence and insufficient corroboration that Thornton resided at 3347 Eleanor Street. The arrest warrants and Thornton’s driver’s license indicated that he resided at a different address than Eleanor Street. Unlike Route and Denson, there are no credit card applications, utility bills, vehicle registrations, or mailing address that would confirm that the person wanted in the arrest warrants lived at 3347 Eleanor Street. Unlike Barrera, Thornton had not previously been arrested at this particular residence, nor had he given this address as his place of residence to any third party that would indicate that he actually resided there. Moreover, the Task Force did not know what vehicles Thornton drove or that any such vehicles could be located near 3347 Eleanor Street. While persons on the run from police do not routinely establish utility bills in their name, in Denson the presence of a utility account combined with no knowledge of another address gave sufficient proof that the defendant resided at the particular home in question. Unlike Denson, there are no utility accounts and the Task Force officers or other law enforcement personnel had followed tips to no less than five other residences, thus raising serious doubts as to a reasonable belief that Thornton resided in any one particular location.

The information received from interviewees fails to establish that the Task Force had a reasonable belief Thornton resided at 3347 Eleanor Street. Most of the individuals the Task Force interviewed told officers they did not know where Thornton was living. In the interview with X, X indicated that Thornton was no longer in Louisiana. The Task Force entered the home based primarily on third-hand information from the associates of a shooting victim’s mother who claimed they saw Thornton walking in a general area of the city.

Finally, the Task Force knew that K.C. was the currently listed resident on the law enforcement database, that V lived inside the home, and that V would know Thornton’s current location. However, the Task Force did not contact K.C. or V to corroborate the information received from other sources prior to making the forced entry. Considering the lack of concrete evidence and insufficient corroboration to establish that Thornton associated himself with this particular address, the Court finds that the Task Force did not conduct sufficient due diligence to establish a reasonable belief that Thornton resided at and was presently within 3347 Eleanor Street. Therefore, the entry into 3347 Eleanor Street was not constitutionally permissible by virtue of the arrest warrant issued for Thornton.

2. Exigent Circumstances

The Government contends the Task Force’s entry into 3347 Eleanor Street was justified pursuant to the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. A warrantless entry will survive constitutional scrutiny if exigent circumstances exist to justify the intrusion. United States v. Rico, 51 F.3d 495, 500-01 (5th Cir. 1995). Exigent circumstances include those in which officers reasonably fear for their safety or the safety of others, where firearms are present, or where there is a risk of criminal suspects escaping or fear of destruction of evidence. United States v. Hicks, 389 F.3d 514, 527 (5th Cir. 2004). The Fifth Circuit has also held that the gravity of the underlying offense for which the arrest is being made is a factor in determining whether exigent circumstances existed. Id. at 527-28.

The Government claims Hicks roughly parallels the dilemma found in this case—a warrantless entry of a violent suspect’s residence for the purpose of arrest. Id. at 526-28. In Hicks, a police SWAT team entered the home of a suspect and arrested him without a warrant. Id. at 527. At the time, the police believed that the suspect had recently shot and killed a fellow police officer. Id. The Government claims the Task Force faced a similarly grave situation as the officers in Hicks. The Task Force was seeking to arrest Thornton, an individual with gang ties, who had injured at least three people. Additionally, the Task Force had received a complaint from the mother of a victim stating Thornton had threatened her child. Other individuals reported Thornton was on the run, aware of the police manhunt, likely armed, and willing to “shoot it out” with police to avoid jail. Therefore, the Government claims exigent circumstances existed in this case.

While the violent offenses for which Thornton’s arrest warrants were issued are no doubt serious, the Court is not persuaded that exigent circumstances existed. Unlike Hicks, Thornton was not suspected of previously acting violently toward police. The Government’s argument that there was a danger posed to the Task Force’s safety or the safety of others is premised upon Thornton being within or reasonably believed to be within the premises. However, as discussed above, the Task Force did not reasonably believe that Thornton resided at and was presently within 3347 Eleanor Street. Furthermore, the Task Force did not observe or bear any activity within the house which would lead them to believe that contraband was inside or that an illegal act was taking place. Accordingly, the Task Force’s entry into the home is not valid pursuant to the exigent circumstances doctrine. Therefore, the Court finds that the Task Force’s entry into 3347 Eleanor Street violated the Fourth Amendment."

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