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The emergency-aid exception overcame a warrantless home search challenge

A U.S. Marshals Service fugitive task force and counter gang unit sought to arrest Cooks at his home.   A member of the Bloods street gang, Cooks  was wanted for second degree assault by the Birmingham Police Department. While surveilling Cooks’s home, the officer saw a car arrive at the residence and the driver entered the home without any interest in speaking with the officers.   The officers made contact with two other occupants who told the officers the door had been barricaded and locked from the inside and they could not open it because they did not have a key. The officers started hearing drilling sounds coming from inside the house.  Soon after one of the occupants was able to exit briefly and before returning to the house she told officers that Cooks was armed.   Concluding that they were facing a potential hostage situation, the officers called the SWAT team.  A hostage negotiator made contact with an occupant who told the officer that the two occupants wanted to leave but couldn’t.  They also told the officer that Cooks was doing something in a hole in the floor.  When negotiations failed, the SWAT team broke into the house and removed the hostages.  One hostage told the officers that Cooks had put multiple guns in a hole in the floor.

After arresting Cooks, the officers did an initial 30 second sweep, followed by a three to four minute sweep.   They found a four by four hole covered by the plywood nailed down with screws.   When the deputies remove the plywood covering and entered the hole, they found a several pistols and long guns.   Only after the discovery of the guns did they obtain a search warrant to search the Cooks home.

Cooks moved the federal court to suppress the guns claiming that even if the protective sweep of the house was lawful, pulling up the floor boards and crawling under the house was an overbroad protective sweep and a violation of the Fourth Amendment.  The lower court upheld the search on the ground that the officer’s search was lawful under the exigent circumstances doctrine.  The magistrate judge reasoned that the officer had a basis to conclude that people had been kept inside the house against their will and exigent circumstances justified the warrantless search because a hostage should not have to wait for a warrant to be freed.

The court of appeals agreed with the court below that the search was justified under what has come to be known as the emergency-aid aspect of the exigent-circumstances doctrine.  In this emergency aid context, the government must show probable cause that the officers reasonably believe a person is in danger.  While the sanctity of the home is foremost under the Fourth Amendment, it must give way to the sanctity of human life where the exigencies demand it.  The court held that the officers must be given the authority and flexibility to act quickly base on limited information when human life is at stake.  Given the weight the court’s precedent places on the need to protect human life, the court found it was reasonable for the officers to believe that Cooks’s hole might have contained additional hostages.   Judge Gilman’s dissenting opinion noted that nothing in the record suggested a reason to believe that the Cooks was hiding hostages in the crawlspace. The government’s argument he observed was an after-the-fact attempt to justify the officers’ search.