Law enforcement officers are trained in the academy that there are only three legal ways to enter a person’s home: with consent, with a warrant or with exigent circumstances. Recently, the Court of Appeals of Georgia decided a case which illustrates the above rule.
In Hicks v. State (GA), the police were called to Hick’s residence in response to a “shots fired” call. According to Hick’s neighbor, Hicks fired two shots from a shotgun toward that neighbor’s house.i The police arrived to the neighbor’s house approximately fifteen minutes after the dispatch and were told that Hicks had done the same thing a few weeks prior. Additionally, he had also threatened the neighbor in a letter. The police were familiar with Hicks and knew that he was a convicted felon, and, as such, could not possess firearms. Hicks also had a history of violent altercations with police.
After meeting with the neighbor, the officers went to Hicks’ house and met with him. Hicks was the only occupant of the house, and he denied shooting or possessing any guns. The police then requested to search Hicks’ residence and he voluntarily gave consent.
During the search, the officers found two spent shotgun shells on top of the garbage can in the kitchen. At this point, Hicks revoked his consent and told the officers to stop searching. The officers then handcuffed Hicks and took him outside the house where one officer stood watch over him. He was not combative during this encounter. The other officers then re-entered Hick’s house and continued to search the entire residence. During the search, the officers found a shotgun and a box of shells in a bedroom under the bed.
Hick’s was indicted for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and he moved to suppress the evidence that was found after he had revoked his consent. The trial court denied his motion finding that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless search. Hick’s was convicted by a jury. Hicks appealed to the Court of Appeals of Georgia.
There were two issues before the court of appeals. The first was whether the search of the entire residence, after Hicks had revoked consent, was justified by exigent circumstances. The second issue was whether the search could be justified as a search incident to arrest, provided that it is assumed Hicks was arrested in the house when he was handcuffed after the officers found the spent shotgun shells.
As to the first issue, the State argues that the re-entry and continuation of the search was justified by exigent circumstances because of the officers need to protect themselves and the neighbor from danger. They argue that Hicks was a felon, and he was known to be violent. He had allegedly made threats against the neighbor, and he had been accused of shooting at the neighbor’s house. Further, the police had just discovered spent shotgun shells in Hick’s kitchen. Since exigent circumstances existed, warrantless entry was needed to protect or preserve life, and this is precisely what the police were doing in this case.
As to the issue of whether exigent circumstances justified re-entry into Hicks’ residence and a continued search after the consent was revoked, the court held that exigent circumstances were not present. The Court of Appeals points to the fact that Hicks was outside his house, handcuffed, compliant and being guarded by an officer. The officer who was guarding him testified in court “After he was handcuffed, he was not a threat.” Another officer also testified that Hicks was not a threat after he was handcuffed. Thus, the Court of Appeals concluded that, after Hicks was handcuffed and weaponless in the front yard and being guarded by an officer, he was no longer a threat and the exigency had passed. Therefore, the States argument that exigent circumstance justified the search is without merit.
In the second issue, the State argues that, when Hicks was handcuffed in his kitchen, he was “under arrest.” Thus, they seek to justify the re-entry and continued search as a “search incident to arrest.” The Court of Appeals held that, even assuming Hicks was arrested at the point he was handcuffed in his kitchen, a search of the bedroom would not have been justified as a search incident to arrest because the bedroom was not an area within his immediate presence at the time of arrest.ii Thus, this argument is also without merit.
Because the Court of Appeals found that there was no justification for the officer’s re-entry and continued search into Hicks residence, the judgment of the lower court was reversed. Thus, Hicks was entitled to a new trial, excluding the evidence found after the re-entry into his residence.
Search and Seizure Review
This case serves as an excellent search and seizure review regarding consent and search incident to arrest. First, free and voluntary consent is an exception to the search warrant requirement for searches in areas where a suspect has a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as a private residence. However, one of the rules regarding consent is that it may be revoked at anytime. Once consent is revoked, the officers must cease their search. But, if during a period of valid consent, an officer discovers evidence of a crime (thus providing probable cause that evidence of crime is in that location) and then the suspect revokes consent, as was the case in Hicks, the officer may seize the already found evidence, secure the premises and detain the occupant, and obtain a search warrant.iii In hindsight, this is what the officers should have done in the Hicks case.
In reviewing searches incident to arrest, it is noted that there are two purposes of this exception to the search warrant requirement. The first purpose is to remove weapons from the arrestee that may be used to injure the officer or affect an escape, and the second purpose is to locate evidence before the arrestee can destroy it.iv Further, the courts have expanded where an officer may search, otherwise known as the scope of the search, during a search incident to a lawful arrest. In Chimel v. California, the United States Supreme Court expanded the search incident to arrest to include, not only the person of the arrestee, but also the area that is within his immediate control.v This means when an officer arrests a person, he may not only search the arrestee’s person, but also the immediate area of the accused. This immediate area has sometime been referred to as the area in the “immediate presence” of the arrestee or the “lunge area.”vi As the rule has been applied, if a person is arrested in a residence, officers may conduct a search incident to that arrest according the following three rules:
- Officers may conduct a full search of the room where the arrest has been made, to include containers in the room, and under beds or sofas;
- Officers may look into (but not go into) areas adjoining the room where the arrest has been made from which an attack could be launched; and
- When officers have reasonable suspicion to believe than an accomplice of the arrested person or some other third party is present in the home and poses a danger to officers, officer may do a protective sweep of the home that is limited to places where person could hide.vii
It is important to note that the second and third rule above are intended to protect the safety of the officer; therefore, any searches based on these rules should be limited to areas where a person could hide.
Lastly, we will review warrantless home entry based upon exigent circumstances. In Minnesota v. Olson, the United States Supreme Court held that warrantless entry into private premises may be allowed when officers have probable cause to believe one or more of the following circumstances are present:
- In hot pursuit of a fleeing felon;
- To prevent the imminent destruction of evidence;
- To prevent a suspect's escape; or
To alleviate the risk of danger to the police or to other persons inside or outside the dwelling (taking into consideration the gravity of the crime and likelihood that the suspect is armed).viii
i Hicks v. State, A07A1796, 2007 Ga. App. LEXIS 885 (2007)
ii Id. at 9 (despite the fact that an officer testified that Hicks was “only detained” at the time he was handcuffed)
iii Illinois v. MacArthur, 531 U.S. 326 (2001)
iv United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 234 (1973); Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 762-763 (1969)
v 395 U.S. 752, 763 (1969)
vi Brannon v. Georgia, 500 S.E.2d 597 (1998); State v. Brassel, S.W.2d 325 (1976)
vii Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325 (1990)
viii 495 U.S. 91, 96 (1990)
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