An Ohio Court of Appeals has permitted police officers to enter a private home to make an arrest for a minor traffic violation. Once in the home, any evidence of crimes observed could be used against an occupant.
The case is State v. Lam, 2013-Ohio-505.
The Defendant was arrested by Dayton police officers. The officers had observed the Defendant’s brother driving a gold Intrigue; they were aware of the brother’s criminal history and also were aware that the Defendant and his brother had “possessed firearms and drugs during past contacts with the police.”
The brother had fled from police two weeks earlier in the same car and his license was suspended. The officers decided to follow the brother rather than immediately initiate a stop for driving without a license and any other pending charges.
While following him, they observed a turn signal violation.
When the brother parked, the officers activated their emergency lights. At that time, the brother and another individual fled on foot. The officers pursued the brother and observed him go into a house. The court described what happened next:
The officers attempted, unsuccessfully, to kick in the door. Although the officers could see individuals inside the house, no one responded to their commands to open the door. The officers retrieved a battering ram from their cruiser and, using it, entered the house. Additional backup had arrived by this time.
Upon entering the house . . . the officers heard an upstairs toilet flushing, and another officer on the perimeter of the house radioed that he heard a person or persons moving around on the second floor of the house. Officers conducted a sweep of the house for their safety. They encountered [the Defendant] coming down the steps from the second floor, and two other men were found upstairs, including one who was hiding.
During their sweep of the house, officers observed crack cocaine in a bedroom, marijuana under a bed and on a stairwell, and heroin in the kitchen, all in plain view. While detaining the men found in the house, the officers called for a drug unit and obtained a search warrant for the house.
The Defendant was arrested and drugs, including heroin tied to the drawstring of the shorts he was wearing under his jeans, were found.
The Defendant challenged the ability of the police to enter into the house. He suggested that entry into a house is not permitted for a misdemeanor traffic violation, and that no exigent circumstances justified the police officers’ entry into his home.
The law is that exigent circumstances can justify a warrantless search when an emergency situation which arises when a person in the home is in need of ‘immediate aid’ or there is a life-threatening situation, or ‘hot pursuit.’
In this case, the State did not assert that there had been a life-threatening situation, a potential for the destruction of evidence, or any other “emergency situation.” Instead, the state argued that the entry was justified because the officers were in hot pursuit of the Defendant’s brother.
The Defendant suggested that this was improper because the officers had only witnessed minor traffic violations. The court rejected this argument. Relying on a 1976 Supreme Court decision, United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38, the court concluded that a suspect could not defeat an arrest by escaping to a private place. The court found that the police were lawfully inside the Defendant’s house when they observed the drugs which formed the basis for the search warrant.
The court expressed some “reservations about permitting police officers to chase a suspect who is known to have committed only a minor traffic violation and to forcibly enter into his house, in the absence of exigent circumstances.” The curt suggested that although precedent bound it to rule against the defendant, “This may be the unusual situation where legal reasoning has plunged off the slippery slope or where the exceptions have swallowed the rule.”