In a recent drug case south of Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant’s drug charges were thrown out after the court ruled that the police officer was not authorized to enter the defendant’s home and any drugs that were found in his home were illegally seized.
In this case, police officers responded to a call of several people trespassing at an apartment complex. The police arrived and saw several people at the complex. The police approached the group and started to ask questions about what they were doing there. Rather than stay around and answer questions, the defendant walked away from the police and into his apartment nearby. One of the police officers followed the defendant into his apartment and saw him drop some bags containing marijuana and cocaine. The defendant was then arrested for possession of marijuana and possession of cocaine.
However, these charges were thrown out and the case was dismissed because the police officer did not have authority to enter the defendant’s apartment.
Let’s analyze this case from the beginning so people understand what the police and a citizen can and cannot do. First, a police officer is permitted to approach anyone and ask anyone questions as long as the officer does not detain the person(s). Of course, in that scenario, a person is free to walk away and refuse to answer a police officer’s questions. Unless the officer can point to specific facts indicating the person is committing a crime, the officer cannot detain a person and prevent him/her from walking away. If the person does walk away, as in this case, the police officer may not follow him into his home. A police officer can only enter a person’s home in three general circumstances: 1) the homeowner gives the police officer consent to enter the home, 2) the police officer has a search warrant to enter the home or 3) there are emergency, or exigent, circumstances authorizing the police officer to enter the home.
In this case, none of those exceptions applied. The State argued that there were exigent circumstances allowing the officer to enter the defendant’s home. That argument failed. A person enjoys the strongest protection from unreasonable searches and seizures in his/her home. In order for a police officer to enter one’s home based on exigent circumstances, at a minimum, the police officer must establish that there is a grave emergency and there are specific facts indicating the defendant is involved in criminal activity and/or there is evidence of illegal activity in the home that must be recovered right now and cannot wait for a search warrant. A general suspicion of illegal activity is far from sufficient to allow a police officer to enter someone’s home without a search warrant.