Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Michigan v. Jeremy Fisher: Question of Fact, Not Law?

New U.S. Supreme Court case that further defines "exigent circumstances" for 4th Amendment purposes.

There are a few exceptions that allow law enforcement officers to enter a private home without either an arrest or search warrant. One of the exceptions is "exigent circumstances". What those circumstances are has continued to be defined.

The Court's decision in Jeremy Fisher restates its earlier decision in Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U. S. 398 (2006). The Court in Stuart held police officers may enter a home if they think someone inside has been or is about to be seriously injured. Curiously Stuart appears to be a restatement of Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U. S. 385, 393–394 (1978). However, this type of exigent circumstance was merely dicta in Mincey. The search in Mincey involved a murder scene that was searched over 4 days by detectives.

Both Stuart and Jeremy Fisher involved police officers responding to a call and determined someone inside was in trouble. In Stuart, it was thought a juvenile was being beaten up by adults. In Jeremy Fisher, blood was found outside the home and the defendant was seen through the window with a cut on his hand.

When the officer in Jeremy Fisher attempted to enter the home, Mr. Fisher allegedly pointed a rifle at him. Mr. Fisher was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and possessing a dangerous weapon while committing a felony. 

The defendant filed a motion to dismiss based on a 4th Amendment violation. A hearing was held. The trial court determined the officer's actions were not reasonable under the circumstances and granted the defendant's motion to dismiss. The State appealed. The appellate court upheld the trial court's ruling but the Michigan Supreme Court overruled the appellate court.

There were two dissenting Justices in Jeremy Fisher, Justices Stevens and Sotomayor. But the dissent was not based on law. Simply put, Justice Stevens wrote the trial court was in the best position to determine if the arresting officer had a reasonable belief Mr. Fisher was in danger, thus allowing a warrantless entrance into the home.

In other words, the dissenting justices didn't think there was a question of law in this appeal but rather one of fact. And while I agree with the legal analysis the Court applied, I also agree with Justice Stevens.

Justice Stevens wrote "We ought not usurp the role of the factfinder when faced with a close question of the reasonableness of an officer’s actions,particularly in a case tried in a state court."



No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to offer comments and opinions. However, if you require legal assistance please call 312-504-4554 to speak with me personally.