Criminal Law Blog

"Emergency Aid" Exception Did Not Justify Warantless Entry And No Exception To The Exclusionary Rule Applies, Court Splits On Sufficiency Of The Evidence Of Possession Of Guns Found In Apartment


Jamel Evans v. United States (decided August 6, 2015)

Players: Associate Judges Beckwith and McLeese, Senior Judge Ferren. Opinion by Judge McLeese, concurring opinion by Judge Ferren, opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part by Judge Beckwith.  Murray Kamionski for Mr. Evans.  Trial Judge: John McCabe

Facts: Police responded to Jamel Evans’s 911 call to report an assault and found Mr. Evans, who was bleeding from the head, and Shantay Taylor, who had blood on her clothes, arguing in the parking lot of an apartment building. Ms. Taylor said that Mr. Evans had punched her several times; Mr. Evans said that Ms. Taylor had hit him, scratched him, and assaulted him with an ashtray while in his apartment. Neither indicated that anyone else was involved in the altercation or present in the apartment. As other officers talked to Mr. Evans and Ms. Taylor, Officer Wendt arrived and upon seeing blood outside the open door of Apartment 201, entered and went through each room of the apartment. In one bedroom he saw a gun inside an open closet and .38 caliber ammunition on a dresser; in the second bedroom he saw no contraband.

Police subsequently obtained a search warrant based on information about the altercation, the discovery of the firearm and ammunition, and Ms. Taylor’s statement that Mr. Evans had bagged up marijuana in the apartment that morning. In the first bedroom (described as messy with an unmade bed), police found a shotgun in a closet containing men’s clothing and found .38-caliber ammunition and a pill bottle labeled “Yvette Murray” on top of a dresser. In the second bedroom, on top of an animal cage, they found a rifle, 9-mm ammunition, and an XL men’s jacket with six ziplocks of marijuana in the pocket. Somewhere in the apartment was a judicial summons for “Christina Brunson” with the apartment’s address. Mr. Evans was convicted of attempted possession of both guns and the .38-caliber ammunition.

Issue 1: Did Officer Wendt’s initial warrantless search fit within the “emergency aid” exception to the warrant requirement?

Holding 1: The warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment and the “emergency aid” exception did not apply. Without deciding whether police needed probable cause or only a reasonable basis to believe that entry was necessary to provide emergency aid to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from immediate injury, the Court held that even under the “reasonable basis” standard, the police lacked adequate reason to believe that immediate entry was necessary to provide emergency aid. Officer Wendt did not have a specific reason to believe that an unknown third party was in the apartment and needed immediate help because the accounts of Mr. Evans and Ms. Taylor did not suggest that anyone else was inside and Mr. Evans’s bleeding head accounted for the blood outside the apartment.

Issue 2: Was the evidence nonetheless admissible under the “independent source” doctrine because the items were seized pursuant to a subsequent search warrant?

Holding 2: No. The Court held that “procedural unfairness” precluded affirmance based on the “independent source” theory because the government had not argued it at trial and the trial court therefore had not made the factual findings relevant to the theory. The Court also declined to conclude in the first instance that the officers would have gotten a warrant independent of the initial entry because the record was not clear and the Court could not decide an issue of fact, particularly where Mr. Evans had not had the opportunity to develop a record on the issue. Finally, the Court concluded that a remand would be inappropriate because the government bore the burden to prove admissibility and did not deserve a second bite at the apple.

Issue 3
: Was the evidence nonetheless admissible under the “good faith” exception?

Holding 3: No. The Court held that the “good faith” exception was inapplicable under Smith v. United States, 111 A.3d 1 (D.C. 2014), because the search warrant was based on information obtained in the unlawful entry and did not operate to attentuate that illegality.

Issue 4: Was the evidence sufficient to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Evans constructively possessed the guns and ammunition?

Holding 4: Yes. Judge McLeese concluded for the Court that the evidence was sufficient to find that Mr. Evans possessed the items because he described the apartment as his, he and Ms. Taylor (but no one else) had been in the apartment shortly before police arrived, the items were in plain view inside the bedrooms, both bedrooms contained men’s clothing, there was no evidence that any other man had control over the apartment, there were no women’s clothes in the apartment, and a reasonable factfinder could conclude that Mr. Evans lived in the first bedroom and that the clothes in the closet were his. Judge Ferren, in a concurring opinion, offered a more simple path to the same conclusion: a factfinder generally may infer that a person constructively possesses items in his home, and here, no facts diluted that inference.

Concurring/Dissenting Opinion: Judge Beckwith joined the majority’s Fourth Amendment rulings and also agreed that the evidence was sufficient to support Mr. Evans’s conviction for possession of the firearm and ammunition in the first bedroom, but disagreed that it was sufficient to show that he constructively possessed the gun in the second bedroom. Judge Beckwith pointed out that the second gun was not in Mr. Evans’s bedroom, was not in plain view, and was not recovered in proximity to Mr. Evans’s personal items, and she noted that evidence linking Mr. Evans to the first gun was insufficient to surmount the circumstances casting doubt upon his possession of the second gun.

Of Note: The decision has useful language about the procedural unfairness of affirming on alternative grounds not asserted in the trial court.  SS


Read full opinion here.