In a recent case in the United States District Court, the plaintiff filed an action against, among others, the sheriff and one of the sheriff’s deputies who responded to an alarm, claiming that the defendants violated federal law by illegally entering his home. The call was received by the County Sheriff’s Department from the alarm company informing them of a suspected break-in. Deputies were dispatched to the scene and while investigating, one of the deputies entered the residence through an unlocked door and discovered two marijuana plants. The deputy subsequently prepared a search warrant, which would give the officers the right to search the premises. The judge issued the warrant and the deputy, when searching the house, discovered marijuana, drug paraphernalia and a large cache of weapons. The plaintiff was arrested and subsequently filed the lawsuit.

With reference to the county sheriff and the county prosecuting attorney who were named as defendants, as well as the county commissioners, the court found that there was no evidence that any of those defendants were at the scene when the plaintiff was arrested and were immediately dismissed by the court on the theory that a governmental entity may not be held liable for the acts of an agent unless the agent is acting pursuant to an official policy or custom at the time the harmful acts were committed.

The remaining deputies filed a motion for summary judgment, which would effectively dismiss the action against them, arguing that they were protected from liability for their actions under the Doctrine of Qualified Immunity.

The court determined that the defendants will not be protected under the Doctrine of Qualified Immunity if the plaintiff can demonstrate: 1) the facts viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff shows that a Constitutional violation has occurred; 2) the violation involved a clearly established Constitutional right of which a reasonable person would have known; and 3) the plaintiff has offered sufficient evidence to show that the officials’ actions were objectively unreasonable in light of the clearly established Constitutional rights.

The court pointed out that the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the warrantless entry into a home absent exigent (emergency) circumstances. The determination of whether sufficient exigent circumstances exist to justify a warrantless entry and seizure requires that the court consider the totality of the circumstances and the inherent necessities of the situation at the time.

Here an alarm system detected an intruder which resulted in the defendants being summoned to the scene to investigate the suspected burglary. The court pointed out that under similar circumstances courts have routinely found that police are justified in entering the home, without a warrant, to investigate and secure the area under the exigent circumstances exception. In this case, the plaintiff maintained that defendants illegally entered his home while investigating the burglary, thereby invalidating the subsequent search warrants.

The court found the plaintiff’s argument without merit, pointing out that a warrantless entry into a home does not violate the Fourth Amendment if exigent circumstances exist. Here the sheriff’s deputies were called to investigate a possible burglary after the plaintiff’s security system had been tripped. When the deputies arrived no one was home and their investigation outside the house failed to provide additional information other than an unlocked door. With no plausible explanation for the tripped alarm, one of the deputies entered the home to investigate and once inside observed in plain view two plants that he believed to be marijuana. With this information, the deputy obtained the search warrant. Executing the warrant, he discovered a bag of marijuana, paraphernalia and a cache of weapons. Therefore, evidence in the record establishes that exigent circumstances existed justifying the defendants’ warrantless entry into the plaintiff’s home. The court noted that the “defendants’ (the sheriff’s deputies) action in this case constituted the type of police work that the community would expect, and possibly even demand.” Exigent circumstances existed for the deputy to enter the premises and therefore the deputy was legally in the plaintiff’s home when he observed the marijuana and the search warrant was valid. For the foregoing reason, the defendant deputies’ motion for summary judgment was granted and the plaintiff’s complaint was dismissed.