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Warrantless entry and limited search of a home by officers was justified by the exigent circumstances

In this civil rights action Montanez sued the Volusia County Sheriff’s deputies for the warrantless entries into the plaintiff’s house, the deputies appeal the district court’s denial of their summary judgment motions for a dismissal. In their challenge they claim that the brief searches were justified by exigent circumstances.   The warrantless searches here arose when a deputy driving his unmarked car through a neighborhood that had a rash of daytime robberies saw a man behind a house who appeared to be looking around nervously while talking on the cell phone. He saw a second man approach the first man and begin huddling with the first man. The officer was convinced they were planning a break-in of the house.

Officer called for backup and when backup arrived they approached the men and handcuffed them. One of the deputies, Raible, entered the back door. Without crossing the threshold he leaned into the doorway and announced he was with the sheriff’s office and directed anyone in the house to come out.

After searching the two individuals they found two kitchen knives they believed were used to pry open the doors after having seen what they believed were fresh marks on the door jam.   When additional officers arrived they decided to enter the home a second time to look for additional perpetrators or potential victims. The second entry was the first into the homes interior and which the officers described as a sweep, which lasted 4 minutes. During the second sweep the officers saw in plain view what they believe to be marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

There was a third entry by the officers lasting about 2 minutes. A fourth entry was made that lasted just over two minutes. When the owner of the home arrived, the officers escorted her into the house for a 5th entry. An hour later investigators went in the home to view the marijuana for a sixth entry. Based on the contraband found the deputy swore out an affidavit in support of a search warrant that was signed. Warrant in hand the officers conducted a full search of the house yielding $18,500 in U.S. currency as well as miscellaneous drugs and drug paraphernalia.

The two individuals handcuffed outside the home and the home owner filed a civil rights claim under U.S.C. §1983 for various Fourth Amendment claims. The Volusia County Sheriff’s motion for summary judgment against Montanez’s claim was denied and they filed this appeal in which they contend that the first two warrantless entries into the Montanez residence were justified by exigent circumstances.

The court of appeals agreed with the officers because it found they were acting within the scope of their discretionary authority and the initial entry and the ensuing four-minute sweep of the home complied with the Fourth Amendment. In those searches in which the officers saw the marijuana and drug paraphernalia in plain view, the searches were justified by the exigent circumstances created by the suspected burglaries. The second searches to re-see (and re-see) the contraband was permissible because the searches did not violate any reasonable expectation of privacy that survived the first valid searches. Once the contraband was found Montanez lost any reasonable expectation of privacy in the areas already searched and the officers could enter and reenter the residence to observe the contraband without separately violating the Fourth Amendment, though the officers had to confine their intrusion to the scope of the original invasion.