From The Bench: Hot Pursuit

For today’s installment of “From The Bench,” we have a decision by the Wyoming Supreme Court, Dillon Wayne Fuller v. State, 2021 WY 36, concerning the “exigent circumstances” exception to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In a rare win for the underdogs, the Court reversed the district court’s decision denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. Or, in English, the Court sided with the suspect over the State of Wyoming.

I. The Facts

Here are the facts of Fuller v. State:

At around 3:30 A.M. on March 20, 2019, Campbell County Sheriff’s Deputy Ryan
Kellison observed a sport-utility vehicle (SUV) with no visible registration traveling through downtown Gillette. He activated his vehicle’s emergency lights and attempted to stop the SUV. The SUV did not stop, but rather sped up slightly from 35 mph to 40 mph. After traveling about four blocks, the SUV pulled into a single-story apartment complex. The driver jumped out of the vehicle, looked at Deputy Kellison, and ran into an apartment. Before the driver entered the apartment, Deputy Kellison twice told him to stop.

Deputy Kellison called for back-up. While waiting for back-up to arrive, Deputy Kellison approached the SUV, where he found a female passenger. The passenger identified herself but claimed not to know the driver’s name. Deputy Kellison ran the passenger’s name through dispatch; she did not have any outstanding warrants. Deputy Kellison waited near the front door of the apartment for back-up.

Back-up officers arrived “a couple of minutes” after Deputy Kellison requested their assistance. Deputy Kellison walked around the apartment building and discovered the only other potential exit from the apartment was a back window, which was closed. Officers positioned themselves around the building while Deputy Kellison and other officers “stacked up” to enter the apartment. After knocking and announcing their presence three times, the officers kicked in the door, which had been blocked by a table. Once inside the apartment, officers found Mr. Fuller and arrested him. Mr. Fuller “had slurred speech . . .[and] could not walk or stand without swaying or being helped by [the officers].” Deputy Kellison smelled “a strong odor of alcoholic beverage coming from [Mr. Fuller’s] facial area” and the odor of burnt marijuana coming from his person. Another officer found marijuana and drug paraphernalia in plain view. Deputy Kellison subsequently obtained a search warrant for the apartment. The search revealed a vape pen cartridge with suspected THC oil.

Fuller v. State, 2021 WY 36, ¶¶ 3-5

The State charged Mr. Fuller with felony possession of a controlled substance, felony DUI, misdemeanor fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, and misdemeanor interference with a police officer. See id. at ¶ 6.

Mr. Fuller filed a motion to suppress all evidence found inside his apartment arguing that the officers entered his apartment without a warrant and a legal justification for their warrantless entry. See id. The district court denied the motion, reasoning that “the officers’ warrantless entry into Mr. Fuller’s home was reasonable because (1) the officers had probable cause to arrest Mr. Fuller for driving without a visible registration and eluding and interfering with a police officer; and (2) exigent circumstances existed—Deputy Kellison was in ‘hot pursuit’ of a fleeing suspect.” Id.

II. Legal Background on “Exigent Circumstances”

The Fourth Amendment protects people from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” In general, warrantless searches and seizures inside a home are unreasonable and unlawful. See Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 586 (1980). However, there are exceptions to this general rule.

Relevant here, if law enforcement possess probable cause that a crime has occurred or is occurring and exigent circumstances exist, then entry into a home to arrest a person or search the home may be legal. See Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740, 749 (1984). So, what does it mean for “exigent circumstances” to exist?

Exigent circumstances exist “when there is compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.” Michigan v. Tyler, 436 U.S. 499, 509 (1978). Courts may allow warrantless searches and seizures on a case-by-case basis where the “exigencies” of the particular case “make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that a warrantless search is objectively reasonable” in that instance. See Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141, 148-149 (2013). “Exigencies can include officers’ ‘need to provide emergency assistance to an occupant of a home, engage in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect, or enter a burning building to put out a fire and investigate its cause.'” Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S.Ct. 2160, 2189 (2016).

In short, law enforcement may enter a home without a warrant if there is some emergency or imminent danger that demands immediate action rather than the necessary delay that comes with securing a warrant.

III. Wyoming Supreme Court: Officers’ Entry Was Neither a Pursuit Nor Hot

Turning back to today’s case, the Wyoming Supreme Court reversed the district court’s order because it determined that the officers had stopped chasing Mr. Fuller and took steps to begin investigating and securing the scene before they chose to enter Mr. Fuller’s apartment without a warrant. See Fuller, 2021 WY 36, ¶¶ 13-17. Or, in other words, the police were not in “hot pursuit” of a fleeing suspect by the time they entered the apartment.

The Court reasoned that the “hot pursuit” exception to the warrant requirement requires two conditions to be met. First, law enforcement must have been “in pursuit” of a fleeing suspect, which requires law enforcement to engage in “some sort of a chase” of the suspect that must be immediate or continuous from the scene of the crime. See Fuller, 2021 WY 36, ¶ 13. Second, the pursuit must be “hot,” or “there must be an emergency requiring immediate police action.” Id.

Here, the Court concluded that the police officers on the scene had ended their pursuit of Mr. Fuller before they entered his apartment. Id. at ¶ 14. “Deputy Kellison chased Mr. Fuller in his vehicle for four blocks and into an apartment complex. However, at the time the officers entered Mr. Fuller’s apartment, the chase was no longer ‘immediate or continuous . . . from the scene of a crime’ because it had been interrupted by Deputy Kellison’s decision to call and wait for back-up. Once back-up arrived, Deputy Kellison walked around the apartment building and other officers secured its perimeter. Although only 8-13 minutes passed from the time Deputy Kellison called for back-up and the officers’ entry into Mr. Fuller’s apartment, this ‘break’ rendered Deputy Kellison’s pursuit of Mr. Fuller neither ‘immediate’ nor ‘continuous’ from the scene of a crime.” See id.

Next, the Court concluded that any “pursuit” in this case was not “hot” because there was no emergency requiring immediate action. Id. at ¶ 16. The Court specifically determined that immediately arresting Mr. Fuller was not necessary to prevent harm to any police officer or another person, Mr. Fuller’s passenger had been identified and secured before the police entered Mr. Fuller’s home, and Mr. Fuller posed “little to no risk of . . . escaping” because the police had “secured the apartment’s perimeter.” Id. at ¶¶ 17-18. Lastly, the Court concluded that there was also “no risk of any relevant evidence being destroyed because the only criminal activity Deputy Kellison had observed at that time was driving without a visible registration and eluding and interfering with a police officer.” Id. at ¶ 18.

IV. Waiting on Back-Up ≠ Hot Pursuit

The moral of the Fuller decision is the police cannot enter a home without a warrant based on the “hot pursuit” exception to the warrant requirement if, before they make their entry, the police took the time to call for back-up and secure a perimeter. Put another way — it’s not “hot pursuit” if you ain’t pursuing an urgent risk to the community or loss of evidence.

The Court summed it all up nicely: “[T]he intended arrest in this case was for non-violent
misdemeanors committed by an individual who fled to his single-exit apartment. The risk
of escape was low to nonexistent due to the presence of back-up officers surrounding the
apartment. There was no evidence which could have been destroyed, and any officer or
public safety concerns were minimal due to the presence of multiple officers and the lack
of any physical threats. Quite simply, there was no compelling need requiring immediate
police action.” Id. at ¶ 24.

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