Yesterday, a Columbus, Ohio police officer shot a man in the neck and cheek and wounded a woman after blindly firing into a closed door. The Columbus Dispatch reports that the officer knocked on the door after a man flagged down police to report that his sister might be doing heroin inside the house. When a resident slammed the door on the officer, it apparently caught the officer’s hand. With his free hand, he reached for his gun and opened fire into the closed door. There were nine people in the home.
Yes, the house apparently has a reputation as being a “drug house.” But there are a couple of issues here.
First, that the officer’s hand was caught in the door at least suggests that he was attempting to enter the house. It is unclear from the story whether he had a warrant. A police officer can enter a home without a warrant under extreme, “exigent circumstances,” such as the belief that someone is in the process of committing a violent crime. A secondhand tip that someone in a residence might be ingesting illegal drugs is not an exigent circumstance.
Second, even if the officer wasn’t trying to enter the home, he obviously had positioned himself in a way that prevented the residents from declining a search and closing the door. The article implies that the residents intentionally tried to slam the door so that it would injure the officer’s hand. Even if that were the case, it doesn’t justify blindly firing into a closed door while unaware of what is on the other side.
The case also raises important questions about the Castle Doctrine and home defense. If a police officer is illegally attempting to enter your home, should you be legally permitted to use force to prevent him from doing so? It’s a difficult question. You don’t want to make people think they have license to decide at the scene that a search is illegal, use force against cops and then end up with casualties. Even if it were unquestionably legal, it certainly wouldn’t be advised. But the alternative is to say that citizens should be legally required to submit to illegal searches and hope that the courts will rule in their favor later. Even if the subject of the illegal search were to later win in court, which is hardly a given, an illegal search can have immediate and irreversible consequences.
An interesting, somewhat related opinion recently from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit provides one example of such consequences. In that case, the police got a tip that some stolen guns were being stored in a Nissan Maxima parked in the driveway of a specific address. The police proceeded to the address and then, without a warrant, entered the property, which was surrounded by a fence. They entered the property despite the fact that there was no Nissan Maxima parked in the drive. They also never found any guns.
Once in the yard, the police officers were confronted by the Saint Bernard owned by the family who lived in the home. One officer then chased the dog down and killed it, directly in front of the dog’s 12-year-old owner.
The trial court judge ruled that the jury should be allowed to consider the possibility that the tip about stolen guns merited an exigent-circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. The Second Circuit court disagreed.
Defendants’ assertions that it would have been far more intrusive to “attempt to secure the parcel of property while a warrant was prepared,” given that Harris’s property was surrounded on three sides by other privately owned parcels, are inapposite. The fact that it may have been more tedious to secure the property at 297 Enfield Street while a warrant was obtained does not create exigency. We further note that aside from there being no urgency created by Hemingway’s tip about the firearms in and of itself, there is no evidence that the officers sought to corroborate the tip prior to their entry. The officers did not attempt to “knock and talk” or to learn who lived at 297 Enfield Street prior to arriving on the scene with their weapons out in a “tactical approach.” Trial Tr. Vol. II at 277; Trial Tr. Vol. III at 620. These facts underscore the inappropriateness of the exigent circumstances exception to this case.
Accordingly, we conclude that there was insufficient evidence of urgency, and that the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement was therefore not applicable on the evidence presented at trial. Because police officers require “either a warrant or probable cause plus exigent circumstances in order to make a lawful entry,” . . . the invasion of Plaintiffs’ curtilage without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment.
The ruling means that the family will be able to sue the officers for damages. But the dog is still dead. The ruling won’t un-traumatize the girl who saw the dog being killed. And eight years have now passed since the incident occurred.