That's the question the U.S. Supreme Court will ponder today as it hears a case involving police officers who entered a Brigham City home after seeing a "tumultuous struggle." The case may have implications for law enforcement nationwide as the high court is asked when an "emergency aid" exemption of the Fourth Amendment applies.
The case started with a neighbor's phone call to police about a loud party in Brigham City on July 23, 2001. Officers arrived at 3 a.m. and didn't find a party, but an "altercation," according to court filings.
The police witnessed a struggle between four adults and a teen, and when one officer saw the teen punch one of the adults, an officer opened a screen door and announced the police presence. When no one responded, officers entered the home to quell the violence.
Three adults involved, Charles Stuart, Sandy Taylor and Shayne Taylor, were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, intoxication and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, but a trial court tossed out evidence of alcohol consumption because the police did not knock on the door to ask for permission to enter the residence.
The Utah Appeals Court and the state Supreme Court found that police officers in the case did not have an "emergency aid" exemption to the Fourth Amendment. But the Utah Attorney General's Office - along with 16 other states and two counties - argue police officers should be allowed to enter a home when they believe someone has been, or could be, injured.
"When police officers get to a home, look through a screen door and see a fight going on, do they wait for someone to pull out a gun or knife before they stop it?" asks Timothy Baughman, chief of appeals for Michigan's Wayne County Prosecutor's Office. "It seems the court there was saying you have to wait until the injury happens before you can go in."
Police officers, whose job it is to protect the community, should be erring on the side of "someone not getting hurt," he said.
Baughman said the Brigham City officers were not entering the home to investigate a crime but to protect a victim.
But Michael Studebaker, an attorney for the defendants, says there were no urgent circumstances in their case and that police officers cannot go knocking down doors "willy-nilly."
"What the state is trying to do is whittle away at the Fourth Amendment as far as searches of your home," Studebaker says.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said in a friend-of-the-court brief that although the government's case is "couched in seemingly innocuous terms," what is at stake is a standard that "would allow the government to enter private homes to investigate criminal activity with no warrant, no probable cause and no real reason to believe that immediate entry was required."
Assistant Utah Attorney General Jeff Gray, however, said previously he fears a precedent where officers are worried about entering a home to protect a potential victim.
"We're very concerned about the signal it sends to officers on the street," Gray said last year. "They are making decisions on the spot."
The case is Brigham City v. Stuart.
The Fourth Amendment
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.