Criminal Law Blog

Hearing loud noises inside an apartment combined with occupant fully opening the door not being fully dressed deemed sufficient to meet exigent circumstances standard to justify warrantless entry into a home.

Ball v. United States (decided May 24, 2018)

Players: Associate Judges Glickman and Easterly, Superior Court Judge Okun, sitting by designation. Opinion by Judge Okun. Dissent by Judge Easterly. Sicilia C. Englert for Mr. Ball. Trial Judge: Patricia Broderick.

Facts: Around five am, police received a radio run for an “assault in progress” at an apartment building. When two officers arrived, they were met by a resident who identified himself as the person who had called because he had heard “yelling and screaming” coming from Apartment 3. As the officers began to approach the apartment, they both testified to hearing yelling and screaming coming from apartment 4, but said the resident was also pointing at that same apartment as the one he meant. One officer said he heard a “distressed female . . . yelling as if she was in pain or struggling” and the other officer said he heard a lot of “commotion.” The officers knocked several times on the door and identified themselves as police. After “one to three minutes,” a woman opened the door halfway and appeared to the officers to be “somewhat panicked and concerned.” One officer described her as being in “a daze.” The officers asked her what was happening inside the apartment but she did not answer, instead she looked back into the apartment and opened the door fully. The officers then saw a second woman inside the apartment who appeared in the process of getting dressed.

After observing these two women and not receiving any responses to their questions, the officers entered the apartment. There, they observed the appellant with his body “partially obscured by a wall.” The police asked appellant to show his hands but according to the officers he did not and instead kept looking back towards the couch in the living room and reaching towards it. One officer then “wrestled” appellant to the ground and both officers handcuffed him after a struggle that lasted one to two minutes. An officer claimed that the couch moved away from the wall during the struggle and that allowed him to see a black handgun lying behind the couch when they eventually stood up. Once they recovered the gun, the police searched the rest of the apartment “for their safety and the safety of the occupants,” and found “one bag of marijuana from the top of a refrigerator, one bag of marijuana from a television stand in the living room, and a grinder with traces of marijuana on the couch.”

Prior to trial, appellant filed a motion to suppress evidence seized from his apartment because the police entered without a warrant and without consent. The government countered that exigent circumstances permitted the police to enter and that the woman who answered provided the needed consent by fully opening the door. The trial court agreed with the government that there were exigent circumstances to justify the entry, but did not rule on the government’s claim of consent.

Issue: Did exigent circumstances justify the warrantless entry into defendant’s apartment?

Holding: Yes. The court concluded that the officers had an “objectively reasonable basis for believing that they needed to enter appellant’s apartment in order to provide emergency assistance to the occupants of that apartment,” despite neither woman that they observed asking for assistance or making any statements to them to indicate they need assistance, and without seeing any injuries on either woman. While the court said such factors often appear in other cases that justify warrantless entry into a home on an exigent circumstances theory, they are not requirements. To meet the standard, the court relied on the following factors: 1) the officers were responding to a call for an “assault in progress;” 2) the police corroborated the information in the call by first speaking with the resident who made the 911 call and then by claiming to also hear screams and loud noises coming from the apartment; 3) the one to three minute delay in opening the door after the police knocked and announced their presence; 4) the woman answering the door failing to respond to the officer’s questions but appearing to be “somewhat panicked and concerned;” and 5) and that after the door was fully opened, the officers saw a second woman who appeared to be partially dressed. The court did admit that it was a “close” case, but believed in the totality the circumstances meet the necessary standard.

Judge Easterly dissented, notinjg that appellant was in “the privacy of his own home,” he was “naked and the women were in some state of undress. The trio was loud. A downstairs neighbor called the police. The police responded and then entered his apartment, without permission and without a warrant. In protest, [appellant] cried out, ‘This is my house. I live here. This is my house.’ He seemed to think the police had no authority to barge into his house. I would have thought that such an entry was precisely what the Fourth Amendment prohibits.” Judge Easterly wrote that while police were authorized to approach the door and knock on it, they never obtained any additional information from that point on that would have warranted crossing the threshold into the apartment. The dissent found it of no consequence that the woman who answered appeared “panicked and concerned,” because that could have been due to police knocking on the door at five in the morning. The dissent stressed that the court should have also factored into its decision what the police did not see once the door was opened: neither woman appeared to be in “pain or struggling, bleeding or bruised, crying or upset, or in any apparent physical danger. There was no sign of broken objects, upended furniture, or any evidence of a struggle or physical altercation.” The dissent concluded that the majority decision is an endorsement of “surmise and speculation,” which the court’s precedent in cases such as Evans v. United States, 122 A.3d 876 (D.C. 2015) and Washington v. United States, 585 A.2d 167 (D.C. 1991), provide as insufficient to equate exigent circumstances.

Of Note:

  • Judge Easterly’s dissent, combined with the majority admitting it was a “close case,” provides a roadmap of how to limit the impact of this decision to its facts in any future case where exigent circumstances is at issue. BM